World Cup roundup: Milestone for Messi, USMNT runs out of steam

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The 2022 World Cup is in full swing. At the end of every matchday, we’ll review the biggest talking points emanating from Qatar and break down all the action on the pitch. Below, we look back on Saturday’s last-16 games.

Lack of depth costs USMNT

Gregg Berhalter’s resources were drained.

The central trio of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah served the United States so well during the group stage, but none of those players managed a successful tackle in the 3-1 loss to the Netherlands. Musah was the first of the three midfielders to complete a dribble – and that came in the 92nd minute. Only Adams kept the ball well.

Meanwhile, the U.S. defenders’ ball-watching was sometimes so pronounced that it seemed trance-like. The backline’s weariness eased the finishes for each of the Netherlands’ three goals. Antonee Robinson was among his country’s best players in Qatar, but he performed his defensive duties in a rather groggy manner on the third Dutch goal. Robinson mindlessly joined Tim Ream in tracking Cody Gakpo, leaving the back stick wide open for Denzel Dumfries’ header.

Despite the starters’ low energy, Berhalter didn’t seem to have much belief in the defenders and midfielders waiting in reserve. Aaron Long, a defender who habitually saves the New York Red Bulls with last-ditch blocks and tackles, was a strong candidate to start in Qatar. He ended the campaign with no minutes. Midfielders Luca de la Torre and Cristian Roldan also went unused.

But there was an awkward chunk of the second half where the Netherlands painfully exposed perhaps the thinnest area of Berhalter’s squad. Young winger Gio Reyna, a pacey dribbler not known for his physicality, played up front with his back to goal after replacing Jesus Ferreira at halftime. Haji Wright appeared off the bench after Reyna toiled as an ersatz No. 9 for over 20 minutes, making his most meaningful contribution in time as a creator, not a finisher, when he set up McKennie for a shot.

The youthfulness of this group and the increased competitiveness of domestic football in the States should mean its national team program is in fine fettle ahead of the 2026 World Cup. Sadly, the 2022 tournament was little more than a steep learning curve and a chance to test Berhalter’s credentials to be the person to oversee the nation at the next World Cup.

Netherlands growing into tournament

Questions over the Netherlands’ ability to make a deep tournament run were justified going into the knockout stage in Qatar. Despite benefitting from a favorable draw, the Dutch largely underwhelmed in their first three games, relying too heavily on Cody Gakpo to provide all of the team’s offense.

But there were signs Saturday that Louis van Gaal’s side is growing into the competition. Even though the United States carried much of the play at Khalifa International Stadium, that was by design. The Netherlands never seemed out of control or overly flustered, happy to cede possession, defend as a unit, and then meticulously pick the U.S. apart on the break and down the flanks when spaces opened.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Van Gaal’s plan of attack was clear, and it worked.

“In the first few games, they (critics) were right; we didn’t play our best football,” defender Nathan Ake told reporters Saturday. “But we knew we had to play better, and today we showed much more what we can do in different phases. In some situations, we had to defend a little bit more, but we know that we’re very dangerous on the counterattack.”

This edition of the Oranje didn’t inspire confidence amongst fans due to a perceived lack of overall talent. But with Memphis Depay returning to full fitness, Frenkie de Jong having more freedom to roam about the pitch, Xavi Simons providing a spark off the bench, and the wing-backs generating attacking thrust, the Dutch are rounding into form at exactly the right time. They’re showing they can play the type of attractive football the country demands. But it isn’t all attritional defending. Depay’s opening goal against the USMNT came after a sweeping 20-pass move.

This team, for all its critics, is still undefeated since Van Gaal returned to the bench, too. The Dutch will be tough to beat.

By the numbers: Messi hits 1,000

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Lionel Messi marked his 1,000th appearance in professional football with yet another goal in a marvelous career, opening the scoring in Argentina’s 2-1 win over Australia. The 35-year-old said in October that this would be his final World Cup.

Francois Nel / Getty Images Sport / Getty

Here are some eye-catching numbers relating to Messi’s last-16 performance:

1 – At the ninth time of asking, Messi tallied his first goal in the knockout stages of a World Cup.

5 – Age of Argentina’s Enzo Fernandez and Thiago Almada when Messi scored his first World Cup goal. Alexis Mac Allister was also younger than Kevin McCallister in “Home Alone.”

6 – Messi has opened the scoring in six World Cup matches. No player has done it more.

9 – Messi has nine overall goals at World Cups. His precise finish against Australia pushed him above Diego Maradona and Guillermo Stabile in Argentina’s list of World Cup scorers and put him one shy of Gabriel Batistuta’s record of 10.

22 – Messi’s return of 22 goals at major tournaments is the same as Cristiano Ronaldo’s haul.

789 – Messi has recorded 789 goals over 1,000 appearances. Take a bow, Messi.

Quick free-kicks

Dumfries vital to Dutch attack

Dumfries was feeling it Saturday. Yes, the irrepressible wing-back benefitted from huge amounts of space afforded to him by the United States – especially on his goal, where the Americans, incomprehensibly, seemed to forget about him standing alone at the back post. But even when the U.S. defense was set, Dumfries was a menace. He set up the first two Dutch goals with pinpoint deliveries and was a constant outlet who his teammates looked for throughout the match. The Inter Milan star became the first Dutchman since 1978 to be directly involved in three goals in a single World Cup match. Only Rob Rensenbrink and late national icon Johan Cruyff had previously accomplished that feat. Decent company.

Alvarez’s ceiling is so high

It was a gift from Mat Ryan, but few players would’ve been as decisive as Julian Alvarez. Others would’ve taken too long to think or steady themselves, but the 22-year-old rode the hapless goalkeeper’s challenge and, while appearing to be off-balance, gently rolled the ball into the far corner. Alvarez became the first Argentine to score in his first two World Cup starts since Hernan Crespo in 2006 and is the fifth youngest player from his country to score in the competition’s knockout rounds. The young attacker isn’t just a clinical finisher. His goal was a just reward for his excellent off-the-ball work against the Aussies.

Can South Korea trouble injury-hit Brazil?

Tite’s squad rotation to conclude Brazil’s group-stage slate backfired. Gabriel Jesus and Alex Telles both injured their right legs in Friday’s 1-0 defeat to Cameroon, and the latter absence means Brazil now has an issue at full-back. Telles joins Alex Sandro, the first-choice left-back, on the sidelines, potentially forcing Danilo (who’s not fully fit) to move to the left and 39-year-old Dani Alves to take on Heung-Min Son on the other side. Is the scene set for South Korea to shock the world Monday?

Aussies, Arnold made entire nation proud

When Australia failed to secure an automatic berth at this World Cup and was forced to go through the qualification playoffs, Graham Arnold was nearly sacked. Even when the Aussies finally punched their tickets to Qatar – after a marathon 20-match qualifying campaign that spanned over 1,000 days – Arnold’s team wasn’t expected to make much impact, if any, at the tournament. But his squad, built on trust and togetherness, set new milestones for the program, recording back-to-back World Cup wins for the first time ever and reaching the knockout stage for the first time since 2006. If it weren’t for a point-blank save in the 97th minute by Emiliano Martinez, Australia would have pushed heavily favored Argentina and Messi to extra time. From there, who knows what would have been possible. “I felt we did a good job. I wanted to say how proud I am of them and the sacrifices they’ve made through the campaign,” the amiable Arnold said after the 2-1 defeat. “Everyone said before we came here we were the worst Socceroo team ever and to qualify for a World Cup – but that’s gone now – we’ve done exceptionally well.”

Stat of the day

If it weren’t for an excellent save from Martinez in the dying seconds of Australia’s last-16 defeat to Argentina, Newcastle United-bound Garang Kuol would’ve been the second youngest goalscorer in World Cup history (after Pele, of course).

Tweet of the day

Memphis Depay kept the receipts after NBA analyst Charles Barkley said the United States would beat the Netherlands.

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