A color clash of the ages: Red, White and Blue vs. Brilliant Orange.
A rising New World side brimming with young talent and hope against the greatest national team without a World Cup trophy on its résumé looking to recapture its glory.
It seems forever and three days ago that Christian Pulisic sacrificed a blow to his nether region to give the U.S. a 1-0 victory over Iran to put the Americans through to this knockout-round match with the Dutch.
And the 24-year-old face of the team, who is dealing with a “pelvic contusion,” has been cleared to play on Saturday after Friday’s training session.
“What I think is, it looks pretty good,” American coach Gregg Berhalter had said of Pulisic’s chances of playing before the U.S.’s final training session on Friday.
Pulisic told ESPN: “I’m going to do everything in my power, with this staff and medical team, to make sure that however long I can be out on that field, I’ll be out there giving my 110 percent no matter what. Because I owe it to this game, I owe it to this team, I owe it to the country back home. I’m going to do everything I can.”
The Americans will need to sprinkle that chutzpah Pulisic demonstrated with a combination of what made them successful during an unbeaten run in the group stage.
The task facing the U.S. is nearly as daunting as their game against England in the group stage. We could expect to see large stretches of the match using the deliberate shape they used against England which will allow the Dutch to see more possession. Like in the England match, it will be mixed with the direction and defensive midfield dominance of captain Tyler Adams that frustrated the English in a scoreless draw. The U.S. has not allowed a goal from the run of play in three matches.
But we likely will see a greater effort to impose the high-pressing style that was effective early against Wales (a 1-1 draw) and Iran.
The odds for the Americans to win are much closer, according to sportsbooks, than they were in the U.S.-England match.
The questions surrounding whether creative midfielder Gio Reyna will contribute were answered in part by Berhalter on Friday. Reyna’s only minutes thus far came in the last moments of the England game when the U.S. “needed a goal.” That indicates Reyna could see action in the second half of a tied match or if the Americans were to fall behind.
Like the Americans, the Dutch failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the national team had to reassess moving forward from a talented, aging generation that reached the 2010 World Cup final and finished third at the 2014 edition.
Americans like to compare the Netherlands to the Buffalo Bills in that Holland has reached the final three times and lost each one. Being that two of those final losses came in the 1970s (1974 to host West Germany; 1978 to host Argentina), the comparison may be more apropos to the Minnesota Vikings.
Those ‘70s Dutch teams revolutionized world soccer, using their “total football” approach of positionless players, exemplified by the legendary Johan Cruyff.
The current group is different, but imposing in its own way.
Like a solid baseball team, the Dutch are strong up the middle with one of the best center backs in the world in captain Virgil Van Dijk and the deft-passing Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong. They also have seen the emergence of 23-year-old winger-attacker Cody Gakpo, whose transfer stock is rising after scoring a goal in each of the three group-stage matches for the Netherlands. Barcelona forward Memphis Depay also provides a threat the U.S. back line will need to monitor closely.
The Dutch are coached by 71-year-old Louis Van Gaal, who led the 2014 third-place side and has seen success in stints managing across top European clubs such as Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Much is also being made on the American-Dutch connections here as Berhalter spent several early professional years playing in the Dutch Eredivisie. Berhalter quipped about his Sparta Rotterdam side beating Van Gaal’s European champion from Ajax.
Right back Sergino Dest, whose brilliant header served up Pulisic’s goal against Iran, is a Dutch-American multinational. The 22-year-old is on loan from Barcelona to AC Milan after coming up through the Ajax system.
The history between the U.S. and the Netherlands is limited to just five friendlies and no meetings in international competitions. The Dutch lead the series 4W-1L-0D, but that American victory came in the last matchup in 2015 when the U.S. exploited the pace of left back/outside mid Daley Blind to rally for a 4-3 win. Blind, 32 and a favorite of Van Gaal, is still the starting left outside mid.
Fun storylines to be sure, but one of these sides will come out with a winning result on Saturday. Why not the U.S.?
“I truly believe that we can play anybody and we can beat anybody,” Pulisic told ESPN on Friday. “We got out of the group, which we can be extremely proud of. But now that we’re here, we’re not just OK with doing that.”