That youthful exuberance, speed and American never-say-die attitude weren’t enough for the U.S. World Cup team on Saturday morning. The plucky Americans were eliminated, 3-1, in the Round of 16 by a bigger, more experienced, patient, and clinical Netherlands team.

Team USA started the game strong, dominated possession from start to finish, outshot the Dutch 17-11 and had eight shots on goal. The Netherlands had just six shots on frame but converted half of them.

The first, a beautiful finish by Memphis Depay in the 10th minute. Then came the gut punch by Daley Blind just before the first half whistle; and then, just when it seemed the Americans had a fighting chance after a 76th-minute goal by Haji Wright, the door slammed shut with Denzel Dumfries’ 81st-minute blast.

There was chatter heading into Saturday’s game that the Dutch were overrated, that they were a boring team that got through an easy group in underwhelming fashion. But there are no points for style at the World Cup. If there were, Brazil would win every trophy.

The goal is winning and advancing, and the Dutch have done that. Netherlands reached the final of the 2010 World Cup before losing to Spain. It is no accident that they are riding a 19-game unbeaten streak. They had a smart game plan against the Americans.

Their wily 71-year-old coach Louis van Gaal has coached Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. He has been coaching since U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter was in middle school. Van Gaal knew Team USA’s strength was its speed, energy and endurance and that finishing scoring chances was a weakness. So, rather than play a fast wide-open game, the Dutch hung back, slowed the pace, let the Americans keep possession and waited for a chance to counter.

Once they got into the final third, they found open spaces and fired away.

Surely, there will be criticisms of Berhalter and the U.S. players. In fact, they started appearing on Twitter during the game. People truly care now. They have strong opinions. They rip coaches and players on social media. That is a sign of the growth of the sport in this country.

A record number of American TV viewers tuned in the past few weeks, despite the time difference and early game times. You could feel the excitement for the U.S. team — and the World Cup in general — build. Everywhere I went, people wanted to talk about soccer.

Ran into friends at a mall Friday night and they said it took 100 phone calls to finally get through to Fritz and Franz Bierhaus to reserve a table for Saturday’s game. Tables were going for as high as $500. Ran into neighbors while walking our dog Saturday morning, and first question was: “Do we have a chance against Netherlands?”

The U.S. certainly had a chance. Berhalter’s team did not embarrass itself by any means. If you had told most U.S. fans before this World Cup that the USA would be trailing 2-1 to a talented Dutch team in the 80th minute in the Round of 16, they would have taken that scenario.

Truth is, despite the loss, this U.S. World Cup team gave Americans plenty of reason for celebration and optimism. Berhalter will have his critics, as all coaches do. We could debate forever whether Gio Reyna should have played more. But the bottom line is, this team not only qualified for the World Cup (which the 2018 team did not), but also it tied England, got through three group games conceding just one goal (a penalty kick), and was in position to tie Netherlands with 10 minutes to go.

That is even more impressive considering the U.S. had the second-youngest roster in the tournament. Only one player on the team, Inter Miami right back DeAndre Yedlin, had World Cup experience.

Speaking of Yedlin, a quick aside: He came on as a sub in the 75th minute and one minute later showed the calmness that has made him a team leader with Inter Miami. It was Yedlin’s perfect diagonal pass to Christian Pulisic that led to Haji Wright’s goal.

The realistic objectives for U.S. Soccer heading into this quadrennial were to qualify for the World Cup, and at minimum, advance to the knockout round. Berhalter and his team did that. Goalkeeper Matt Turner has been one of the best in the Cup. Before Saturday, the defense was impenetrable, not giving up a single goal from the run of play in the group stage.

Pulisic, who came back from injury to play the entire game Saturday, proved his worth. Team captain Tyler Adams is only 23, but already a respected leader on and off the field. Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Timothy Weah and Sergino Dest all stood out.

Team USA gained respect in Qatar. The core of the roster is young, talented and undaunted by traditional world soccer powers. But the team needs improvement in the final third. It needs more creativity and a few ruthless forwards to finish off that final pass and find the back of the net.

The 2026 World Cup is 1,283 days away and co-hosted by the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Miami is one of the 11 U.S. host cities. Hard Rock Stadium could host as many as five games.

Based on the growing buzz in America for the Qatar World Cup, 2026 is going to be one heck of a party and the hosts will want to outlast their guests.

The clock is ticking. Can’t wait!

But first, let’s enjoy the rest of this one. Will Lionel Messi finally win the only trophy that eludes him? Will England, France, Brazil or Spain win? Or will Morocco, Spain, Japan and Senegal pull more upsets? The party goes on. But it would have been more fun if Team USA were still in it.

©2022 Miami Herald. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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