The pain and promise of the USMNT’s World Cup exit

Washington Post photo by Jabin Botsford
The U.S. men’s national team lost to the Netherlands on Saturday, ending its World Cup campaign.

RAYYAN, Qatar – As the American soccer players took their sadness and their hope and exited this World Cup on Saturday night, they passed through the mixed zone, a strange and familiar maze of padded barricades and ad-rich walls at global sporting events where athletes sometimes stop in front of gaggles of reporters and share insights or non-insights on what just happened.

The Americans stopped, one by one by one, and unwittingly built a sort of staccato chorus that told of their pain at their 3-1 shooing from the Netherlands, their sense that they might have done more, and their sense that they might do more.

They offered a bit of What I Learned At The World Cup, as when goalkeeper Matt Turner said, “I think the biggest thing is the margins of success or failure in this tournament are just so paper-thin,” or when the youngest captain at this World Cup, Tyler Adams said, “If there’s anything this team will take away from it, it comes down to the margins,” or when veteran DeAndre Yedlin said, “I mean, I think the biggest thing is the group learned what it feels like to lose in a World Cup, and that goes a long way,” or when Christian Pulisic said, “We don’t want to feel like this again.”

First came Turner, 28, who began with: “I said this on [TV], the silence is deafening [in the locker room]. Everyone’s disappointed and everyone is in a somber mood.” He told how Dutch seemed to have “expectation” about the cutback crosses that wreaked the first two goals, said it “came down to both boxes” where “they finished their chances,” said it had been an honor, and said he hoped boys and girls would watch and aspire to emulate.

“There’s a tremendous potential,” he said. “If you don’t see that, I don’t know . . . The potential is clear.” He did not want that “to be our M.O.,” and said, “That’s part of changing the expectations of our fans, changing the expectations of the players in the locker room, not just feeling like we won a trophy because we made the round of 16.”

Next came Adams, 23, who spoke about those “margins” – they’re everywhere, actually, across the 32-team event – and how the center backs “did really well,” and how he wasn’t around for 2010 and 2014 when the United States reached the same juncture, so he doesn’t know, but this does feel “special.”

Soon came Walker Zimmerman, the 29-year-old center back. He analyzed the Dutch puncturing of the American airtightness that had carried through Group B but could not hold against Denzel Dumfries’ first-half cross-backs. “Right,” he said, “you never know if it’s something that they maybe saw on tape. I mean, I’d have to go back at the group stage to see if those spaces were even open. Obviously we weren’t hurt by those chances in the group stage. Maybe it’s something that they saw. Maybe it’s just the execution in that moment, but again, certainly that second one, we’ve got to be able to mentally top that play from happening.”

He summarized. “I think that’s what makes it the hardest,” he said, “just to go out knowing how special this team was, how hard we worked.” He thought they arrived with the goal of winning the whole thing and “showed that we can compete with anyone,” and ran off a list of promising attributes including “the youth of the team,” the “bond,” the “love that we have for each other.” He said this World Cup had been “something that a lot of American fans can look at and be proud of – the way that we play, the way that we went about our work. So I think we’ll be back hungrier than ever, a lot of the guys in their what we’d considered their prime, we have a lot of guys coming through the pipeline that I think can contribute. So it’s an exciting time to be an American soccer fan, and I just wish that the legacy – that’s what hurts is we thought this was a group that could have done something no American team had done.”

Andries Noppert popped by. He’s not American but Dutch, and a goalkeeper, and he took a few questions and chimed in with this: “In my opinion they’re really tough. They go like crazy, like hell. They’re working together. They don’t give up.”

Yunus Musah, still just 20 somehow, was brief but said, “The team we are, we could have done much better.”

Brenden Aaronson, 22, was somewhat less brief and said: “Sad and a lot of emotions. It’s just tough.” And, “I mean listen, we had just as many chances as they did.”

Antonee Robinson, still just 25, walked through and said of the two early goals: “I don’t know. Can’t tell you. I think maybe they pulled our team apart a bit, in terms of positioning.” He said he hopes Coach Gregg Berhalter stays on and said: “He’s given a lot of boys a chance to develop with this group. You look at the whole campaign and pretty much everyone’s played their first World Cup.”

He said he felt “like I’ve given everything I could have,” and that, “A whole lot of these players can be together for years and years now.”

Here came Weston McKennie, 24, who proactively defended Pulisic for his miss in the third minute: “For anyone who may try in the future, ‘Oh if Christian would have score that,’ we all have seen the things he’s done for U.S. soccer. We all know it’s a collective here. We all try to support each other.”

He told of “a common goal four years ago” after missing the previous World Cup, and said: “This tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect to U.S. soccer. I think we’ve shown how we can be giants. We’re not there yet, but I think we’re on our way.”

Pulisic, 24, arrived.

He almost whispered.

“There was plenty in the tank,” he began, to a question wondering about fatigue.

“It’s gonna hurt for a while,” he said of the early miss.

“We’ve definitely come a long way,” he said.

He said the Dutch seemed early on to have two real chances but also two real goals. “Felt like we were down 2-nil but it didn’t feel like it should be that way. That’s what good teams do, they punish you.”

Yedlin, 29, the only player left from Brazil 2014, stopped and said: “I mean I think we gave a lot of people hope. I think people see the talent of this team, they get excited. I think the camaraderie of the group is exciting.”

“Now it’s a whole different story,” he said. “They know that feeling of what it’s like to lose after putting so much into it.”

Finally, there came Tim Ream, the 35-year-old defender. The evening, the World Cup and his U.S. career had waned, on a night when, as he told it from so much experience: “Sometimes, you know, good players get the jump on you. They anticipated. Those two players (Dumfries and Memphis), they were a little quicker. It was probably something they had worked on.”

“Yeah,” he said, “I mean, I’ve tried to convey to the guys: You’re never guaranteed anything in this game. I’ve been in the program for 12 years, never guaranteed anything. A lot of these guys are guaranteed another World Cup. For me, that’s not going to happen . . . I’ve given it everything, and I hope these guys take that advice. I’ve seen them take that advice in the three weeks we’ve been together so I hope they continue to do that.”

With that, the mixed zone concluded for the night.