AL RAYYAN, Qatar (AP) — Christian Pulisic covered his face as he walked off. Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta gathered for a group hug. Tim Weah, DeAndre Yedlin and Sean Johnson sat on the field in a small circle with their cleats off.
“It hurts after a tough loss like that when we feel like we could have had more,” Pulisic said, managing a voice only just above a whisper. “We don’t want to feel like this again.”
The United States’ return to the World Cup ended with a 3-1 loss to the Netherlands on Saturday in the round of 16. While the Oranje extended their unbeaten streak to 19 games and advanced to a quarterfinal with Argentina, the Americans contemplated how far they came and how short they fell.
Defensive lapses gave the Dutch a treat as Memphis Depay scored in the 10th minute and Daley Blind in first-half stoppage time.
U.S. hope revived when Pulisic’s cross hit the trailing foot of second-half substitute Haji Wright and popped over goalkeeper Andries Noppert and into the net in the 76th. But Denzel Dumfries, named after actor Denzel Washington, scored on a volley in the 81st after assisting on the first two goals.
“The American public should be optimistic,” said Gregg Berhalter, the first person to play for and coach the U.S. team at a World Cup. “When you look at the way we wanted to play and did play, it should be positive.”
The U.S. hasn’t reached the quarterfinals since 2002 and was eliminated in the first knockout round, just like in 2010 and 2014.
After the American failure to qualify for the 2018, Yedlin was the only holdover on a roster that was the tournament’s second-youngest, averaging just over 25 years.
“Now they know that feeling of what it’s like to lose after putting so much into it,” the 29-year-old defender said, “and the feeling of defeat from the past can only fuel success in the future.”
The U.S. is winless in 12 games against European opponents at the World Cup since 2002 and has won once and lost seven in knockout rounds since the championship launched in 1930.
“This tournament has really restored a lot of belief, restored a lot of respect to U.S. soccer and to soccer in our country,” McKennie said. “I think we’ve shown that we can be giants eventually. Maybe we may not be there yet, but I think we’re definitely on our way.”
Before a crowd of 44,846 at the renovated Khalifa International Stadium, Pulisic had a chance to put the U.S. ahead in the third minute. McKennie knocked a poor clearance back into the penalty area, but Noppert blocked his point-blank shot with his left thigh.
“I thought I was way offside when it happened, but I still hit it and he made a good save,” Pulisic said.
The Dutch went ahead when Cody Gakpo played the ball to Dumfries on the right flank. Depay sprinted into the penalty area as Adams failed to track him, and Dumfries one-timed a cross that Depay redirected inside Matt Turner’s far post for the first goal against the U.S. during the run of play in the tournament.
Blind scored in the first minute of stoppage time. Following a throw-in, Dumfries got a cross around Adams and Blind beat a late-arriving Sergiño Dest to the ball at the penalty spot for his first international goal in eight years.
Wright entered in the 67th and scored his second international goal on the unusual touch from three yards out, sparking U.S. hopes. But Dumfries was left unmarked by Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson and scored off Blind’s cross from six yards for his sixth goal.
“When you play a team with so much quality like that and you give them three, four chances, they’re going to put three or four away,” Adams said. “We can show that we can hang with some of the best teams in the world, some of the best players in world, and that’s a lot of progress for U.S. soccer.”
Players didn’t want to leave the field at first, wanting more time together.
“Just putting perspective and reflecting on the journey,” Yedlin said. “Just giving thanks to the Earth. After every training and game we try to do a thing called grounding. It just helps put in perspective to come, good or bad.”
Others absorbed the defeat without words.
“Just looking around that locker room, the silence is deafening,” Turner said. “We all want to create moments for people back at home to fall in love with the game and tonight was not one of those nights, unfortunately.”