At last, we get a small break from soccer until Friday, when the quarterfinals start up. Team USA is out, as you’ve probably heard, thanks to their lack of a consistent finisher. The same flaw will take down the Netherlands at some point, but De Oranje move on. The host nation continues to prove itself not ready for prime time, as a Qatari whistleblower on the treatment of migrant workers appears to be under torture. The bad news about Qatar may have dried up for other media outlets, but not here. Time for the postmortem:
How should we take USA’s performance at this World Cup?
Feel free to have mixed feelings. The squad lost to the Dutch because of a lack of ruthlessness that you’d expect from the youngest team in the tournament. Our country will co-host the World Cup in 2026, and the core players (Pulisic, McKennie, Musah, Adams, Dest, Antonee Robinson) will be more seasoned by then. Had Team USA beaten the Dutch and then gotten past Argentina in the quarterfinals, it would have overinflated expectations for ’26, because it’s unlikely that even an improved USA would have been able to match a semifinal run four years from now. On the other hand, the loss was a blown opportunity for USA to claim a scalp. There’s nothing like beating one of soccer’s established powerhouse countries at the World Cup to demand people’s attention, the way Mexico and South Korea beat Germany at the last tournament and Japan and Morocco beat Spain this year. The last time USA pulled an upset like that was their win over England in 1950, when most of us weren’t alive. The Dutch were probably a more vulnerable opponent than the Italian team that didn’t make this tournament, and USA couldn’t take advantage.
Why aren’t more people talking about Haji Wright’s goal against the Netherlands?
Because it came in a losing effort, and because he probably didn’t mean to do it. Perhaps he hoped to lay the ball off for a teammate in front of goal, and perhaps he didn’t mean to touch the ball at all. In any event, he hit it with the back of his heel and it popped up over two defenders and Dutch goalkeeper Andries Noppert. Who cares, though? It was spectacular, regardless of his intent. Ronaldinho scored a hellacious free-kick for Brazil to beat England at World Cup 2002, and he admitted that he had mishit a cross and it had gone in unintentionally. Sometimes there are happy accidents in this sport, and you should celebrate them.
What else happened in the round of 16?
When Japan lost on penalties to Croatia, I thought everything else was going to go chalk and we would have the same countries in the quarters as always. Instead, Morocco saved us from that fate by beating Spain in a shootout, with Yassine Bounou saving three penalties and making my last World Cup post look like genius. The Atlas Lions have now gone as far as any African country has advanced in the World Cup and further than any Arab country. They’ll now face a Portugal team that bit the bullet and benched Cristiano Ronaldo, with the result being a 6-1 smoking of Switzerland that included a hat trick by Ronaldo’s direct replacement, Gonçalo Ramos. I’m not sure how to take this — Ronaldo earned this benching by throwing one of his trademark hissyfits when he was pulled against South Korea, and he might have a meltdown if his team keeps winning without him. On the other hand, if Portugal does win the World Cup, he’ll reach new levels of insufferability. The day before Colts quarterback Matt Ryan played poorly against the Cowboys, Australia goalkeeper Mat Ryan embarrassed himself even worse by gifting Argentina its game-winner.
What should we look for in the quarterfinals?
The marquee matchup will be England vs. France, and I think this is where the champions are stopped. Sure, Kylian Mbappé has continued to score goals by the bucketful, and he could carry Les Bleus to victory. Even so, the Three Lions seem to be peaking at the right time, with all kinds of options in attack and a midfield that can win the battle against France’s Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot. Phil Foden started for England in their win over Senegal, and their attack flowed that much better, so he should start again for this big game. Meanwhile, I have no idea what to expect from Netherlands vs. Argentina. The Dutch have more talent overall, but Lionel Messi can still crack the best defense. The coaching matchup between old Louis van Gaal and young Lionel Scaloni will be something to watch. The other quarterfinal match is Brazil vs. Croatia, and unless goalkeeper Dominik Livaković plays the way he did against Japan, I don’t see this going Croatia’s way.
What was different about this World Cup for USA?
A goalkeeper with hair on his head. Our country has a long history of bald men starting in net: Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, even Marcus Hahnemann. You have to go all the way back to the early 1990s to Tony Meola and his ponytail to find the last male USA keeper who needed to buy hair-care products. Matt Turner made a good enough display of himself this year to make a case for hairy goalies, with a great save off Ben Davies’ header against Wales and intelligent decisions with the ball. The only goal he gave up in the group stage was that penalty that Gareth Bale smacked like it said something about his mama. Turner seems too good to be a backup for Arsenal, and his play will encourage the Gunners to make some sort of decision about him. Bald is beautiful, but for once a guy with his hair has claimed a place between the sticks for USA.