If this is boring football then give Louis van Gaal more of it. The Netherlands’ head coach has bridled at claims he has brought a tedious team to the World Cup but they had the class, nous and killer instinct that the United States lacked to become the first country into the quarter-finals.
A player named after the actor Denzel Washington – the Internazionale defender Denzel Dumfries – was the architect of the USA’s demise with two assists and a fine third goal that extinguished any chance of a comeback by Gregg Berhalter’s young side. The USA rallied strongly after finding themselves two goals down at half-time and the cheekiest of flicks from Haji Wright brought hope.
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But the Netherlands, resolute and clinical, were unmoved. It is now 19 matches without losing since Van Gaal returned to the job for a third time last year, with 11 World Cup games unbeaten under the charismatic manager, and his team are settling into their stride in Qatar. “Our ball retention needs to improve but we scored beautiful goals today and that gives us confidence,” he said.
The Netherlands have five days’ rest before facing Argentina on Friday, while the co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup have four years to digest the painful lessons of this last-16 defeat.
Berhalter’s team dominated possession in the first half but it was an exaggeration by the coach to suggest that they were “on top”. The USA rarely threatened their opponents before the interval and were exposed whenever the Netherlands broke from their tight, defensive shape. Van Gaal was unhappy with the Netherlands’ sloppiness in possession in the first half– “unacceptable at a World Cup,” he called it – although he rightly purred over their “flawless transitions”.
The breakthrough was beautifully worked and prised the USA apart in seven pristine passes. Memphis Depay was involved at the outset in his own half and at the conclusion in the opposite penalty area. Having carved open the USA midfield with a series of one-touch passes Cody Gakpo surged forward and released Dumfries on the right. The wing-back pulled an intelligent cross towards the penalty spot where the unmarked Depay converted into the bottom corner. They had lured the USA into a trap and punished them in flowing, polished style.
The complexion of this first knockout tie could have been so different had Christian Pulisic converted a one-on-one after three minutes. Pulisic, cleared to play after suffering a pelvic injury when scoring the crucial winner against Iran on Tuesday, found himself free inside the area from a Tyler Adams flick. The forward was denied by the outstretched leg of the goalkeeper Andries Noppert.
The USA were too safe in possession in the first half, short of ideas on how to recover from falling behind for first time at the tournament. On the few occasions they did find gaps in the Dutch defence, prospects of an equaliser were undermined by a poor final touch.
The Netherlands’ second goal was almost a carbon copy of the first. Dumfries escaped down the right once again, latching on to a deft touch from Davy Klaassen, and played an identical cross to the opener. This time Daley Blind arrived in space to tuck away a neat finish into the same corner Depay found. Blind, who had skied a similar invitation from Dumfries earlier in the half, sprinted over to the Netherlands’ technical area to celebrate with his father, Danny, who is also Van Gaal’s assistant.
The USA did not let the deficit or the timing of the second goal deflate them. A much-improved second-half display almost brought an immediate response when Pulisic’s corner dropped to Tim Ream, whose awkward touch took the ball beyond Noppert. Gakpo was perfectly placed to clear off the line.
Wright injected some desperately needed menace into the USA attack. The substitute was also denied on the goalline after pouncing on a careless back-pass from Depay and rounding the Netherlands’ keeper. Dumfries came to his team’s rescue on that occasion.
But a minute later Wright had his goal and the USA had a route back. Depay was again culpable with a showboating touch that DeAndre Yedlin turned on to Pulisic. He crossed low and Wright, falling in front of Virgil van Dijk, somehow managed to flick the ball up and over Noppert with his heel.
Dumfries was unable to intervene at the back post, although the hugely influential defender would have one more part to play in the USA’s downfall. Their chances of a recovery were over within five minutes. The left wing-back Blind delivered an inch-perfect cross to the back post for the unmarked right wing-back to steer an unstoppable left-footed volley into the far corner. “Yesterday I gave him a big fat kiss,” said Van Gaal as he sat next to Dumfries at the post-match press conference. “Today I will give him another one.” He then planted one on the defender’s cheek.
“The aim of the match was to win and I’m happy I was able to help the team,” said Dumfries.
“I was pleased for Daley [Blind] too. If I’m honest we’ve had some criticism recently. And I think it’s a good boost for both of us that we were important tonight for the group.”