DOHA, Qatar — When the World Cup draw was held in April, even the most casual of soccer fans could have predicted that the United States and the Netherlands would meet in the round of 16.
The Netherlands, perhaps the best country to never win a World Cup, cruised as expected to the top of its first-round group, recording two wins and a tie. The United States, a young team still finding its footing on soccer’s biggest stage, finished second in its group behind England, with two ties and a win.
In that sense, things have gone mostly according to plan. The challenge for the Americans, now, is finding a way to subvert another expected outcome and pull off a victory.
“We’ve been watching Holland for the last 11 months, watching all their games,” United States Coach Gregg Berhalter said on Friday afternoon. “We’ve had multiple people at their group-stage games, watching live.” He added, “We’ve really done a deep dive on them.”
The Americans’ tactical planning, Berhalter said, kicked into overdrive almost from the moment his team beat Iran, 1-0, on Tuesday night to clinch a spot in the knockout round and seal Saturday’s matchup.
In a news conference Friday, Berhalter and midfielder Tyler Adams, the American captain, were full of praise for the Dutch, who finished third at the 2014 World Cup before failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament. (The Dutch and their coach, to no one’s surprise, tossed bouquets right back.)
But Adams nodded to some of the spectacular upsets in the group stage of this tournament — Japan’s wins over Germany and Spain, Tunisia’s defeat of France — as evidence that things do not always play out as they should on paper. Sometimes, the better team doesn’t win. Sometimes, it’s not even the better team.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.
When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.
Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.
How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.
How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.
How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.
When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.
Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.
“I think you can look at a lot of the games so far in this World Cup and use them as motivation,” Adams said. “A lot of teams that might be underdogs in these games have come out on top, and that just shows that in these games it comes down to the moments, how focused you can stay over 90 minutes.”
The knockout stage, the Americans said, offered a different, far more intense challenge than group play did.
Berhalter said he would have to adjust his lineup and substitution patterns, for example, with the understanding that the game could run more than 120 minutes, given the possibility of extra time if it were tied after regulation. He said the players this week had also been working on penalty kicks. They were planning to practice them again Friday.
Among the more pressing questions facing the Americans before the weekend was the status of Christian Pulisic, the team’s most dangerous attacking player. Pulisic scored the team’s only goal in its win over Iran but sustained an injury on the play — described by the team as a pelvic contusion — in the process. Pulisic tried to play on after he was hurt, but he ended up leaving the game at halftime to head to the hospital.
Berhalter on Friday was optimistic about Pulisic’s readiness to face the Netherlands, but — just as Pulisic did on Thursday — he stopped short of saying for sure that his star would play.
“What I think is, it looks pretty good, but we’ll have to see him today on the pitch to get confirmation of that,” Berhalter said.
The Netherlands will have been ready for this moment, too, even if its ambitions lie somewhere beyond this round.
Coach Louis van Gaal on Friday hit back at critics in the Netherlands who have bemoaned the team’s overly pragmatic — boring, some might say — approach to winning the group. Van Gaal, a famously confident and irascible coach, said he heard the same critiques while leading his country to the semifinals in 2014.
Van Gaal also said he had not watched the Americans play until their opening match of this World Cup. But he said he was impressed by what he had seen.
“The U.S.A. has demonstrated that it has an excellent team — I would even say one of the best teams, a team that is fine-tuned,” he said. “It’s going to be a very tough match. But it’s nothing we can’t overcome.”
Van Gaal praised the Americans for their cohesion under Berhalter. He noted that some teams advanced on the strength of the individual abilities of their players, while others, such as the United States, found strength in their unity and willingness to fight for their coach and teammates.
“What I have observed is a vision,” van Gaal said of the U.S. team. “What I see is a team that is keen to execute the vision. I see especially the conviction of the players, and that for a coach must be fantastic.”
Van Gaal was open on Friday about his team’s ambition to win the whole tournament, saying the Netherlands was preparing as if it had another four matches to go.
The United States refused to look beyond the one immediately in front of it.
“From defense all the way to their attacking players, every single player plays at a high level,” Adams said of the Netherlands. “Going into this game, we know we’re going to have to be up for the fight because when you’re playing against that much quality, yeah, you’re able to limit them. But for how long?”