The knockout rounds are here at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
For the USMNT, that means a Round of 16 match against the Netherlands, Group A winners, arrives on Saturday (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo). The winner advances to a quarterfinal on Dec. 9, likely against Argentina, while the loser heads home from Qatar.
The Netherlands are on an 18-match unbeaten run. So should the USMNT make adjustments to their starting XI after finishing second in Group B? I wouldn’t change a thing, but there are injury concerns after both Christian Pulisic (pelvic contusion) and Josh Sargent (ankle soreness) were forced to come off against Iran due to knocks.
From what I’ve read, Christian is moving towards being available to start, and US Soccer has confirmed he's available for selection. But unfortunately, Sargent may be a bit further away. Given the Norwich City striker most likely can’t start, this is my projected starting XI.
What if Sargent can’t go?
Josh Sargent was fantastic against Iran, his best performance in a USMNT kit. He was heavily involved, playing a key role in keeping possession with his hold-up play, making intelligent runs to stretch the backline, and working hard defensively to win the ball back. His performance showed how an effective striker can link the USMNT’s dynamic wingers in the final third.
If Sargent is indeed out, head coach Gregg Berhalter has a few options to explore. He could start Haji Wright, who has yet to really showcase any of his strengths and struggled to be involved. He could go with FC Dallas striker Jesús Ferreira considering he likes to check deep into midfield and be an option in the build-up. But Ferreira hasn’t played at the World Cup and if given the opportunity would need to play higher upfield.
As for Christian Pulisic, all messaging from player and coach point to the Chelsea star giving his all to be ready. I’d put him out there from the start and not go the super-sub route. He’s not missing this one.
Establishing all that, I see Brenden Aaronson operating on the right and Tim Weah moving inside to the No. 9 spot. Weah has been shifting inside already when the US are in possession, whether it’s been Sargent and Wright up top. That’s allowed Sergiño Dest, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah to occupy wide spaces and create. Weah can also still make runs into the channels behind Dutch wingbacks Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind, a spot where the Oranje are vulnerable.
Aaronson has real quality in the press and transition moments that will help the US create chances. His defensive work rate will be so valuable when the US aren’t in possession. We’ve seen Aaronson come off the bench in all three group-stage games, and now’s the time for him to impact the game from the jump.
What about Reyna?
This could be the match where Gio Reyna plays an important role, even though the talented 20-year-old has yet to get significant minutes.
The Borussia Dortmund attacker is very confident in tight spaces and can be aggressive in the final third. I could see him entering the match early in the second half and providing the spark in front of goal this team needs.
When looking at the Netherlands, a team that presses and likes to keep the ball, I find it hard to keep Cameron Carter-Vickers off the pitch. The 24-year-old center back is calm in possession and took good angles when defending against Iran.
The communication between CCV and Tim Ream helped them find a good balance and they partnered to cut out passes effectively. The Celtic man escaped a last-minute penalty call against Iran with his slight pullback on striker Mehdi Taremi. But he largely impressed and backed Berhalter’s decision.
After about a year out of the picture, Ream has been a standout. His anticipation and quality on the ball, to play between lines, has been superb. The Fulham veteran, now 35, has been composed, looking to play positive passes, and he’s played to his strengths. The US midfield trio’s dominance has helped tremendously as well.
Walker Zimmerman started the first two matches of the World Cup alongside Ream. The Nashville SC standout played a solid game until a costly mistake against Wales, when he clattered into Gareth Bale and conceded a penalty. In the match against England he was strong with his timing, balance and up for the challenge with aerial duels. But in possession, Zimmerman looked uneasy and predictable. The Nashville defender deferred to Ream or the closest player under pressure, and sometimes lacked the confidence to build out of the back.
I see Zimmerman being a defensive substitution to close out the game, when teams start to lump balls forward. He excelled in that tactical situation as the US went to a back five late vs. Iran.
Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal has ditched the traditional 4-3-3 formation the Dutch are known for to a 3-5-2 in order to maximize the talent on his roster.
They’ve put Cody Gakpo in the central role and the 23-year-old PSV attacker leads the Dutch with three goals. He’s been clinical, making intelligent runs from outside in. His partnership with the tricky Memphis Depay makes them unpredictable. They thrive with the ball played to their feet. Gakpo’s movement can be problematic for a backline and the USMNT’s communication will need to be superior to deal with the two attackers.
Everything flows through Frenkie de Jong. The Barcelona midfielder is the facilitator, constantly looking to get on the ball and play between the lines. He’s completed 202 passes in the tournament so far and leads all players in the World Cup with 26 line-breaking passes. De Jong makes time for himself on the ball and moves off the ball with real determination.
Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk and Manchester City’s Nathan Ake anchor the backline. They have a presence and confidence that sets the tone for the team. They are often left in 1v1 situations when the ball turns over, but they have done a good job of disrupting attackers with their strong tackles. Van Dijk is very poised under pressure and if allowed to come forward in possession he will venture into midfield without pause.
The lone goal the Dutch have allowed this World Cup came during the run of play in their second Group A match against Ecuador.
They took an early 1-0 lead thanks to Gakpo, who hammered home a left-footed shot at the top of the box. Ecuador came out in the second half pressing to find the equalizer and it came soon after. While the Oranje were trying to build, defender Jurrien Timber was dispossessed and Ecuador went direct to goal. Enner Valencia did the rest from there.
The Netherlands will try to pin you in your defensive third with penetrating passes into midfield. They also push both wingbacks high, leaving van Dijk, Ake and Timber exposed. They rely too heavily on the central defenders to win their 1-v-1 duels. That means pressure on the ball is vital.
The USMNT can’t get caught giving the Dutch too much space to pick out passes. If the US can establish control of the midfield, the Netherlands will find it hard to create chances. An effective transition game, where the US will need to find the balance of being direct and patient, should win this one.
The USMNT’s Group B finale against Iran was a knockout round simulation. In a must-win scenario, the players stepped up and got great preparation. The midfield trio of Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams once again dominated the center of the park. That trio will need to neutralize de Jong.