The United States men’s national team will match wits with Netherlands at 10am ET Saturday in the 2022 World Cup’s Round of 16, the biggest match for the program since the 2014 knockout round scrap with Belgium that cemented Tim Howard’s status as a USMNT icon.
If the Yanks hang with the Netherlands, let alone beat them, there’s a good chance another USMNT player tattoos his name on the national team’s history. Christian Pulisic may have already done so against Iran but let’s face it: The knockout rounds are a different animal.
[ MORE: Netherlands vs USA preview, stream info ]
That means winning a match-up or two, and Netherlands presents a bunch with world-class players In defense — to a man — as well as midfield in Frenkie de Jong and emerging attacker Cody Gakpo up top.
And there’s another match-up we’ll get to, an internal one, by the end of this post.
Netherlands vs USA key battle No. 1: The front three versus Van Dijk, Timber, and friends
This one could start with Christian Pulisic versus Virgil van Dijk, as the Chelsea man has had plenty of luck against the once-imperious Liverpool man over his career, but there are two problems with that.
The first is that Pulisic may not be fit to start the match and the second is that Van Dijk in a back three versus Chelsea is much different as Van Dijk in a back three versus international competition.
Make no mistake about it: The Netherlands back three is a luxury most nations envy. Beyond Van Dijk, there’s young Jurrien Timber, Man City’s Nathan Ake, Juventus’ Matthijs de Ligt and Inter Milan’s Stefan de Vrij. That’s a special, special group.
And with Josh Sargent’s ankle, we can’t even cheat and make it about VVD versus the USMNT’s center forward. So suffice it to say that Gregg Berhalter’s front three is going to have to find a way behind and between a terrific defense. Timothy Weah might be the best bet to get behind, but will he have Pulisic to pull the strings?
Netherlands vs USA key battle No. 2: Yunus Musah versus Frenkie de Jong
This isn’t really a 1v1 scrap, either, though it’s a battle of who will out-produce the other.
Tyler Adams will do a lot of the dirty work for the United States, but the USMNT will look to Musah to take the ball off the backs and off Adams and progress the ball forward.
That’s very much what FDJ thrives doing, and the Dutch will be expected to have more the ball in this game.
If Musah’s carries, final third entries, and dribbling distance is anywhere near De Jong’s, the U.S. will probably be having an okay day. It does not bode well if De Jong’s is superior, because the Barcelona player’s midfield mate may also have similar numbers and USA will be all about the counter attack.
Netherlands vs USA key battle No. 3: Tyler Adams versus the Dutch midfield and defense
Following the tone set by key battle No. 2, the USMNT is going to want Tyler Adams dictating the pace and electricity of the game if it can have the ball as much as it would like in this Round of 16 matches.
Adams being able to decide whether he’s playing the old John Brooks role of picking up audacious long passes or shuttling the ball to Musah or another player for progression and combination play is a boon to the USA when it has enough control of the game to make Adams a quarterback.
To borrow and mutilate a pop song from years ago, the Yanks would love to be all about the pass, about the pass, no dribble.
But if the Yanks are reduced to having to make the most of counters, with limited passages of play with strong possession, then it becomes less about Adams with the ball and more about an off-his-game (for now) Weston McKennie and his friends creating mayhem for the Dutch. That can be fine, too, but we bet Berhalter is watching the Dutch matches from Group A and speculating that he can have around 45 percent of the ball.
Netherlands vs USA key matchup No. 4+5: Christian Pulisic vs his pelvis, Gregg Berhalter vs himself
Gregg Berhalter has done a pretty good job setting up the Yanks for games here, and deserves a whole lot of credit for that as well as the USMNT’s growth from game-to-game and its keeping its head in the wake of federation-inflicted controversy prior to the Iran match.
But this one’s a big one. If Christian Pulisic can start the match against the Netherlands, the USMNT’s odds of winning the game shoot up exponentially.
If not, Gregg Berhalter’s seeming preference to slot in Brenden Aaronson over Giovanni Reyna opens the Yanks up against a team that would love to see the Yanks more opened up.
Let me explain.
Aaronson is an exceptional talent, a whirlwind of concern of the opposition as he presses like few others and seemingly never really tires. He’s also a smack talker of the highest order, but that’s beside the point and not just because Reyna possesses skills in that department.
The right-footed Aaronson is such a good presser and runner that he ranks high amongst top-five league forwards in pressures, interceptions, blocks, and clearances. That’s important, but it also leaves space on the pitch for tidy teams to exploit.
While the Yanks aren’t cooked with Aaronson in Pulisic’s spot, they are far more like-for-like when Borussia Dortmund starlet Giovanni Reyna is in the fray. Reyna fits the bill in a lot of the above pressing quotes but is just a bit better in the small spaces, a bit closer to Pulisic. Consider Aaronson more in the Adama Traore or Jack Harrison role, while Reyna is more like club teammate Marco Reus.