AL RAYYAN, Qatar -- Every four years, when the United States men's national team are eliminated from a World Cup -- at least the ones they qualify for -- the refrain is predictable: "We proved we belonged," or some variation thereof.
Except this time around it rang truer than in the past. Over the course of four games in Qatar, the US went toe-to-toe with their opponents, pressed them effectively and defended stoutly. Doing so with the second-youngest team in the tournament also bodes well.
So, with Netherlands having dispatched the US 3-1 in a World Cup round-of-16 matchup, a slightly different flavor of the same sentiment could be heard. As US manager Gregg Berhalter said: "We set out with a goal to show the rest of the world how we can play soccer. I think we partially achieved that, even though we fell short of our goals."
The US fell short because of, well, a shortage of goals. And that was ultimately the difference between the two sides on Saturday.
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"They were clinical in their [scoring] opportunities in the first half," Berhalter said about the Dutch. "Other than that, there wasn't much separating the teams." But you can file that last comment under, "An inch is as good as a mile."
While there was progress in some areas, there is one where the Americans still have considerable catching up to do. The name of the game -- and the hardest part of the game -- is scoring goals, and for all of the impressive play by the US in this World Cup, the Americans found the back of the net just three times in four games. In terms of expected goals per game, the US were in the bottom half of teams that reached the round of 16 (tied for 12th), and also the tournament as a whole (23 out of 32.)
So, for all the talk about how this is the most talented team in the history of the US men's program, there is one area where you could argue that, say, the 2010 side was better -- at least relative to the competition: that team had goal scorers and this one doesn't. Sure, that 2010 side didn't get enough goal production from forwards at that World Cup, but goal scorers can be positioned elsewhere on the field. In Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, that team had a pair of goal scorers that gave the US hope they could win against anyone.
On this current USA team, the reason for such belief has yet to emerge with enough consistency to really take the Americans to the next level, where they can genuinely threaten to beat the best teams enough times to go deeper at a World Cup.
Against the Dutch, some chances were there. Christian Pulisic's attempt in the third minute, when he was put clean through by Tyler Adams -- only to see his shot saved by Netherlands keeper Andries Noppert -- is one he rues.
"It hurts, man. It hurts," Pulisic said of the miss. "I thought I was way offside when it happened, but I still hit it, and he made a good save. It's going to hurt for a while."
Fixing the US scoring problem
Berhalter acknowledged the difference in quality -- and experience -- when it came to finishing off chances, especially at the forward position. "We don't have a Memphis Depay right now, who is scoring goals in the Champions League, and playing at Barcelona and has been an international for years and years," he said.
The US don't have a Denzel Dumfries or a Daley Blind delivering pinpoint passes into the box either. For the US too often in this tournament, the final ball into the box wasn't good enough. It wasn't just about the strikers and poor finishing, but also about not creating enough high-quality chances.
For all the talk of expected goals in this game, where the Netherlands (1.67 xG) barely had the edge over the US (1.49 xG), there were just three big chances for the US where the xG was greater than 0.19. One of those, Haji Wright's goal has to be considered a lucky fluke, coming as it did on a deflection off his heel that he seemed to know little about. The rest of the USA's chances were low-percentage shots.
True, this is the World Cup, and goals are hard to come by, but the US simply must improve in creating quality chances and in finishing the chances they do get. With the next World Cup to be hosted in the US, Canada and Mexico in 2026, the Americans have four years to fix this.
In terms of wing play, the US have talent in this part of the field, to be sure, with Pulisic, Timothy Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Giovanni Reyna. Outside backs like Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson, who had stellar tournaments up until the Netherlands game, factor into this equation as well. And over the next four years they'll need to continue the growth they showed in this cycle -- they cannot afford to tread water if the US are to progress, and there is every reason to be optimistic they will build upon this tournament. There are no guarantees though.
Yet, a consistent center-forward remains this team's elusive unicorn. Would Ricardo Pepi or Jordan Pefok have done better at this World Cup? It's hard to imagine them performing worse than Wright and Jesus Ferreira did, and that is a decision that Berhalter is going to have to live with. But the search goes on.
Pepi, just 19 years old, figures to get plenty more chances in the next cycle, although it remains to be seen how many competitive games await the US given the likelihood that as a host the US will automatically qualify for 2026 World Cup. The same will be true for Josh Sargent, still just 22, who was solid but unable to find the net at this World Cup.
More candidates undoubtedly will emerge to challenge those already there -- at least, the US should hope so. The ideal scenario is that the competitive environment within the national team and at the players' clubs will raise the collective level of the American team. Fixing the USA's lack of goals might take time, but it has to be a priority.
Otherwise, when it comes to World Cups, the US will again find themselves talking about how they hung with the big boys instead of beating them.