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It's knockout time at the World Cup for the U.S. and Netherlands — only one moves on

USA men's soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter speaks during a news conference at the Qatar National Convention Center in Doha on Dec. 2, 2022.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
USA men's soccer team coach Gregg Berhalter speaks during a news conference at the Qatar National Convention Center in Doha on Dec. 2, 2022.

DOHA, Qatar — When the U.S. men's national soccer team plays the Netherlands Saturday at the World Cup in Qatar, you would assume the pressure on both teams will be sky high.

Because, this is it, right? The knockout stage, where ties are a thing of the past and every match is played until there's a winner. Who moves on? Who flies home?

With that much on the line, both teams are expected to play with a burning intensity.

But for the U.S., in fact, there's relief, too.

Gone is the enormous weight of expectation that preceded the win-or-go-home final first-stage match against Iran. Where a loss, or a draw, would've been an indictment of U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter's efforts over the last four years to rebuild a program that bottomed out when the men's national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

After beating Iran, Berhalter talked about the relative simplicity of now being in the knockout round.

"From here, anything can happen," he said. "All we need to do is play one game at a time. There's no need to even project how far this team can go because our next match is against Holland, and that's our main focus."

Ready for it all

Indeed, no more of those first-round concerns about points for wins or draws or goal differentials to see who goes on to the next stage.

Berhalter has talked about the knockout round being the start of a second tournament.

Friday, in a pre-Netherlands match news conference, he talked about the different preparations for this next phase. Matches potentially could be at least 30 minutes longer if, after 90 minutes plus stoppage time, the score still is tied. If the match still is tied after 30 minutes of extra time, it's decided by often-maligned, and anxiety-producing, penalty kicks.

Berhalter says his team is ready for it all.

"We've had multiple people at [the Netherlands] group stage games," Berhalter said, "so [we're] really doing a deep dive on them. All the information was presented to us immediately after the game against Iran. You [also] have to realize it could be a 120-minute exercise and you have to plan your lineups and substitutions accordingly. And then finally you have the penalty kicks, which we practiced yesterday and we'll practice again today."

Then there are the specifics of facing a Dutch team ranked 8th in the world, a European power that finished 2nd and 3rd at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups. Like the U.S., the Netherlands didn't qualify for the last tournament. But it won its first-round group of four teams here in Qatar and features top players like Wout Weghorst, Memphis Depay, Frenkie de Jong and Cody Gakpo. The 6'4", 23-year-old Gakpo is being called a breakout star at this World Cup, with three goals in three matches.

"Yeah, it's tough. They have talent," Berhalter said. "But for us it's about the collective. Listen, [our] back four [defenders] have done a great job, the goalkeeper's done a great job, but it's about team defending. Working as a unit. Moving collectively. And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions, where they can't access the spaces they want to access. And I think that's been what we've been good at in this tournament so far."

Indeed, the U.S. only has given up one goal, a successful penalty kick by Wales in the teams' first match, and held England and Iran scoreless. It's the first time the U.S. has had multiple shutouts in a World Cup since 1930.

It's impressed Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal.

"[The U.S.] is a very energetic squad, with physically strong players," he said at a news conference through an interpreter. "That's tough for any opponent, and you can tell with their results. I don't think [the U.S. advancing to the knockout round] is a surprise, to be frank. I expected they would progress after the first match [against Wales]."

Louis van Gaal, head coach of the Netherlands men's soccer squad, speaks during a news conference on Dec. 2, 2022, in Doha, Qatar.
/ Tullio Puglia - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
/
Tullio Puglia - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images
Louis van Gaal, head coach of the Netherlands men's soccer squad, speaks during a news conference on Dec. 2, 2022, in Doha, Qatar.

Van Gaal, a legendary coach doing his third stint leading the Netherlands' national team, laid the praise on thick for the Americans, calling them "an excellent team, [you] could even say one of the best teams."

But he also showed that his team, which has been blasted by Dutch media for underperforming in Qatar, has aspirations beyond the "one-match-at-a-time" mantra of the U.S.

"We want to be world champions, so we've got another four matches ahead of us," van Gaal said.

Lessons learned in Holland

The U.S. news conference was notable for being much more relaxed than the pre-Iran session. In that one, there was open hostility directed at the U.S. by members of the Iranian media, after U.S. Soccer's clumsy show of support for those in Iran protesting the violent ongoing crackdown by the Iranian government. The U.S. federation altered depictions of the Iranian flag on its social media, scrubbing the flag of its Islamic republic emblem and taking out script praising God.

By contrast, all the talk Friday was about sport, which U.S. captain Tyler Adams said he greatly appreciated.

"Yeah, I'm very happy to talk about football," Adams said.

And Berhalter particularly enjoyed reminiscing about his first experience overseas as a professional player, in the Netherlands. When asked what concepts he took from playing six seasons of Dutch football that helped shape him as a coach, he answered, "What concepts haven't I taken?"

"When you're in Holland, basically after every training session you have a debate with your players about the training session. After every game, you talk with people about the game. People love to discuss soccer, and you really learn a lot. It was a great time for me."

Pressed for more about those lessons, Berhalter obliged.

"Just about spacing, the positional game, third man, triangles, all those things like the details of the game. I remember there was an old striker that I played with when I first got there. He would yell at me for [passing] him the ball with too much spin. He wanted balls that came at him straight, that I had to hit [the ball] with my laces. And I wasn't good enough hitting with my laces. So I had to practice, practice, practice so I could [pass] him a ball that he wanted."

Berhalter also recalled "the times we beat Ajax," referring to the legendary Dutch team that, at the time of those apparent defeats, was coached by van Gaal.

Who Friday claimed amnesia.

"Do you really think that I remember?" van Gaal said, adding, with a ladle full of sarcasm, "No, I don't remember that match. Perhaps his father needs to join us here because he remembers all these things. I don't live in the past, I live in the present, and the future. I always make plans for the future."

For instance, a World Cup title on Dec. 18. Meantime, Berhalter will try to win a match Saturday that leaves a lasting memory for van Gaal, and the Netherlands.

The round of 16 match begins at 10 a.m. ET.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.