Scouting USMNT's next World Cup foe: Are Dutch vulnerable?
DOHA, Qatar — The United States faces a stern test when it takes on the Netherlands on Saturday (10 a.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app) in the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup. But while the U.S. enters the match as underdogs, pulling off the upset against FIFA's eighth-ranked team isn't impossible.
The first round of the tournament suggested the Dutch, for all their depth, do have some deficiencies that Gregg Berhalter's squad can exploit. Let's dive in.
How the Netherlands got here
Louis van Gaal's team finished first in Group A. Like the U.S., the Dutch went through the first round undefeated, although with two wins to the Americans' one.
In between, they were held to a 1-1 draw by Ecuador, which was eliminated by the Lions of Teranga on Tuesday.
What the U.S. must be wary of
The Netherlands is an elite foe; the three-time World Cup finalist is widely considered the best nation never to have won it all.
Van Gaal has plenty of talent all over the rest of the field — and on the bench.
Barcelona forward Memphis Depay, who has 42 goals in 84 international appearances, started just one of the three first-round games. Same for Bayern Munich defender Matthijs de Ligt. Those two players would start for just about any other team in Qatar.
Against this highly technical, experienced squad, the blueprint for the U.S. will be similar to the England game. Gregg Berhalter's men won't win the possession battle (at least as long as the game stays tied), so they must use their young legs and athleticism to limit the time and space they give the Dutch by getting bodies on them as soon as they receive the ball.
That's especially true against Gakpo, a 6-foot-4 winger for PSV Eindhoven who plays centrally for his national team and loves to drop into the midfield to lose his markers.
Weaknesses the Americans can exploit
The Netherlands' group stage results are somewhat misleading. Senegal outshot the Dutch in the opener and looked like it could pull off the upset until Gakpo scored the eventual winner with just six minutes remaining in the second half. Ecuador thoroughly outplayed Van Gaal's side after Gakpo's early goal — their only shot on target — in that one and were unlucky not to snare all three points.
As good as Van Dijk is, the Liverpool man isn't as impenetrable as he was for club and country a couple of years ago. Depay came into the tournament nursing an injury. They're also green in goal.
Former first-choice keeper Maarten Stekelenburg is retired, while Van Gaal left out another longtime veteran, Jasper Cillessen, citing poor form. The three backstops who did make the roster have just 11 caps between them. Starter Andries Noppert had never played an international match before the World Cup.
The Dutch are also always capable of performing at a level well below the sum of their parts: Like the U.S., they didn't qualify for the World Cup four years ago. They also missed out on the 2016 Euros after finishing third at Brazil 2014. So far in Qatar they have been less than convincing.
Potential X-Factor for the U.S.
One of the key U.S. players, attack-minded right back Sergiño Dest, knows this Netherlands team inside out. Born to a Dutch mother and American father and raised just outside of Amsterdam, he came through Ajax's famed youth system before breaking through with the club in 2019. A former U.S. youth international, Dest stuck with the American program despite being wooed by then-Oranje coach Ronald Koeman in 2019.
Dest had the game-winning assist on Christian Pulisic's goal against Iran on Tuesday that set up this meeting with his birth nation.
"I know almost every single guy over there," Dest said after the match. "They want to go through, but we have the same dream."
Like Dest, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart is also a Dutch American; Stewart represented the Americans at three World Cups and scored the winning goal against Colombia in 1994.
Meantime, Berhalter began his playing career in the Netherlands. That could give the U.S. unique insight into the mentality of their opponent — a potential advantage that the Netherlands won't enjoy.
And after achieving their primary goal of surviving the group stage, Berhalter's team will be under considerably less pressure than their more esteemed foe.
"We can relax now," Dest said. "I can't wait to play the next match."
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.