The American dream is over but Louis van Gaal can still imagine glory. The Netherlands manager may have been in a minority of one when arguing his team could win the World Cup but his side marched into the quarter-finals with their best performance of the tournament so far. There was vindication in victory for Van Gaal as the Oranje prospered courtesy of his blueprint.
The 71-year-olds has been criticised for abandoning the Dutch tradition of wingers but his wing-backs proved potent. The second goal was created by Denzel Dumfries for Daley Blind, the third a role reversal.
Dumfries delivered the star turn, with two assists, a goal and a goalline clearance. Only Johan Cruyff and Rob Rensenbrink had been directly involved in three goals in a World Cup game for the Dutch side before, so Dumfries finds himself in elite company.
The other scorers were two survivors of the squad Van Gaal took to the semi-finals in 2014 and then to Manchester United, in Memphis Depay and Blind. Yet while his old boys helped, it was a triumph for the oldest manager in Qatar, a Van Gaal masterclass.
Netherlands’ first-half double seemed to stem from his tactics board, each coming from a low cutback from Dumfries towards the penalty spot. Both were the result of his positioning, with Van Gaal using the wing-back’s pace to get into space behind Antonee Robinson.
That Jurrien Timber shifted across to cover for Dumfries helped the Dutch extend their fine defensive record. The American theory that defence wins championships could bode well for Van Gaal. His side have only conceded twice this tournament and his captain, Virgil van Dijk, was in commanding form.
Netherlands nevertheless needed two goalline clearances, the second from Dumfries to deny the substitute Haji Wright. If, but for a terrible touch, the target man should have scored, he did contrive to find the net a minute later without knowing what he was doing, Christian Pulisic’s cross looping up off his boot and nestling in the net. Yet it was not Pulisic’s most memorable contribution.
There was a sense this was a game determined by two golden chances in the first 10 minutes and the United States have four years to rue the one their golden boy missed: Tyler Adams hooked a pass over the Dutch defence, the Chelsea winger angled a low shot and Andries Noppert stuck out his left leg to make a vital save. If the United States were buoyed when Pulisic was passed fit, they were immediately deflated and soon behind.
They were unlocked by the slickest of moves. It involved 20 passes, the most in a World Cup goal since 1966, ending with Marten de Roon finding Dumfries in space. He, in turn, cut the ball back for the equally unmarked Depay to place a shot of similar precision past Matt Turner.
Van Gaal had eased Depay into the World Cup, starting with two substitute appearances, and the Dutch had looked a lesser side in his absence. His first goal of the tournament reduced a reliance on Cody Gakpo. His sharpness gave them dual threats and could have brought him a second goal, with Turner turning a shot over the bar. His threat extended to either end: Depay inadvertently provided a defence-splitting pass to accidentally set up the American Wright.
Meanwhile, even as Gakpo’s run of scoring in every game this tournament ended, he delivered a crucial intervention, clearing off his line to keep Tim Ream’s effort out.
If the attackers delivered in defence, two of the back five were hugely influential when they advanced. On the stroke of half time, Dumfries picked out Blind who had ghosted into space to finish. Then, when the USA threatened a comeback, Blind crossed and Dumfries volleyed home.
Each was testament to the footballing intelligence of the Ajax man. Blind may be one of the slower wing-backs around and perhaps his quickest run all afternoon was after he scored and to celebrate with father Danny, captain of Van Gaal’s Champions League-winning Ajax team and now part of his backroom staff. It was the Blind pleasing the Blind.
For the United States, trailing was a jolt. It was the first time Gregg Berhalter’s team had been behind in the tournament and they struggled to respond. Some 40 minutes had elapsed between Pulisic’s glorious opportunity and their second shot. Timothy Weah connected beautifully with it but Noppert parried a stinging drive.
Jesus Ferreira was the third striker to start so far for the United States but he was removed at half time, with Giovanni Reyna coming on to act as a false nine. The USA were livelier thereafter, especially when Wright came on as an agent of chaos, but much as they deserved to reach the last 16, the reality is they exit with a mere three goals to their name.
The World Cup has lost a continent as the Netherlands eliminated the last North and Central American representatives.
It has been an underwhelming World Cup for Concacaf, with the United States the best of a bad bunch. The regular chants of “USA” may have prepared them for the 2026 tournament but they will have to bridge a gulf in class if they are to challenge on home soil.