The United States players doubled over at the final whistle, their white jerseys drenched in sweat, their faces twisted with exhaustion. They hung their heads and left them there.
The Americans had arrived in Qatar last month fresh-faced and with modest expectations. They were the second-youngest team at the tournament, representing a country returning to the World Cup for the first time in eight years. Qualifying for the tournament had been cause enough for celebration.
But the grandeur of the World Cup, all the spirit and fanfare on the ground, has a way of making a group of players want more, of making them believe they can have it.
The Netherlands dashed those dreams — that little feeling of what if — in clinical fashion on Saturday night, exposing all the Americans’ deficiencies in a 3-1 loss before 44,846 fans at Khalifa Stadium.
The U.S. team will return home having achieved one small goal, vanquishing whatever lingering shame the program might have felt since 2017, when a previous team’s failure to qualify for the previous World Cup triggered a yearslong period of rebuilding and soul searching. But they may feel like they could have had more….