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A look at the ‘Oranje’: Netherlands is up next for US squad on Saturday

Despite some star players, the Netherlands as a whole hasn’t played great at this World Cup.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group A - Netherlands v Ecuador
The Netherlands' Cody Gakpo, right, takes a shot as he is defended by Ecuador's Gonzalo Plata on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, in Doha, Qatar. The Netherlands next faces the United States on Saturday.
Hannah Mckay / Reuters
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On the face of it, you’d rather finish first in a World Cup group and play a second-place finisher than the other way around. But for the U.S. men’s soccer team, finishing second in Group B in Qatar might have produced a better matchup for them than finishing first would have.

The Netherlands undoubtedly has a very good team. Forward Cody Gakpo is on fire, with a goal in each of the Dutch squad’s group stage games — and they were all terrific plays. Midfielder Frenkie de Jong is an elite playmaker and tempo-setter who has two goals, one assist, and three chances created so far. Center back Virgil van Dijk is one of the world’s very best at his position.

If you follow the big club teams in Europe, you know de Jong plays for Barcelona and van Dijk plays for Liverpool. You might not know a lot about Gakpo. He plays for PSV Eindhoven, mainly as a winger, and had 18 goals and 18 assists for the Dutch club this season before heading to the World Cup.

If you’re a Leeds United fan, you might know him a little too well. Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams, and Jesse Marsch’s bosses made a big run at Gakpo this summer, but a potential deal fell apart right at the transfer deadline.

Any lingering dreams of Leeds signing Gakpo are dust now, thanks to his great play in Qatar. Whatever team signs him next — Manchester United is reportedly the leading candidate — is going to write a very big check.

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But for all that, the Netherlands as a whole hasn’t played great at this World Cup. It took 84 minutes for the Dutch to open the scoring in their group stage-opening 2-0 win over Senegal. Then came a 1-1 tie with Ecuador in which La Tri had 15 shots to the Netherlands’ two. Last was a 2-0 stroll past Qatar, a host nation already eliminated from advancing.

Senegal, meanwhile, hit high gear in a 3-1 win over Qatar and especially a 2-1 win over Ecuador. The Lions of Teranga won’t be favored against England but are likely to give the Three Lions a pretty good test.

FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 - Group A - Netherlands v Ecuador
The Netherlands' Frenkie de Jong, seen here against Ecuador on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022, has been one of the team's best players at this year's World Cup.
Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

Of course, it would be no surprise if the Oranje turn on the clockwork against the U.S. on Saturday. Manager Louis van Gaal has won trophies coaching Ajax, AZ Alkmaar, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Manchester United; and he coached his country to third place at the 2014 men’s World Cup.

He’s now 71 and recovering from a long battle with prostate cancer. He has no reason to care if Dutch fans and media — who’ve long valued aesthetics as much as results — find his team boring.

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter has his own share of experience with critics of playing style. For as much good soccer as the Americans have played at this World Cup, they nearly threw it all away by being more defensive than they had to be late in the Wales and Iran games.

Now, though, Berhalter has his own response: His team is the first U.S. men’s squad since 1930 to post two shutouts in one World Cup. Conceding just one goal in this tournament’s toughest group is a genuine feat.

What’s to come? It will be a while before we know for sure, due to the uncertainty over Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent’s injuries. If both can’t go, it will be easy enough for Berhalter to replace them with Brenden Aaronson and Haji Wright. But that won’t solve the continued absence of Gio Reyna, whose talent could help the Americans’ upset bid.

It will be an upset bid, to be clear. But it likely won’t be the one-way contest that the 2014 U.S. team’s round of 16 game against Belgium was. This U.S. team is better than that one, and this Netherlands team isn’t as good as that Belgium team was.

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©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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