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U.S.-Netherlands World Cup prediction: An upset is possible, but not likely

In a NCAA basketball tournament, you go looking for upsets in the bracket. In a World Cup, you pick the favorites.

Frenkie de Jong (left) is one of the Netherlands' players to watch against the United States in the round of 16.
Frenkie de Jong (left) is one of the Netherlands' players to watch against the United States in the round of 16.Read moreLuca Bruno / AP

If you’ve been following the U.S. men’s soccer team for a while, you likely remember its last World Cup Round of 16 game against a European power.

Indeed, you likely remember it a little too well. Lots of people are haunted to this day by the Americans’ narrow loss to Belgium in 2014, especially Chris Wondolowski’s late miss on an open net when the game was scoreless at the end of regulation. All three goals in the 2-1 final score came in extra time.

Those same people remember Tim Howard’s goalkeeping heroics, as they should. But they might not remember the true scale of them. Belgium nearly tripled the United States’ shot total, 38-14, with 26 shots on target to the Americans’ nine. Howard’s official save total was 15 in the 132 minutes of game time — 120 minutes plus 12 of stoppage time across the four periods.

» READ MORE: The Eagles’ grounds crew chief went to Qatar to prepare for hosting the 2026 World Cup

The point of bringing back these bad memories is that, on paper, the U.S. really shouldn’t have won that game. This time, things are different.

This U.S. team is better than that one was, which is an obvious thing to say but still bears saying. The talent is the best of any American men’s team in World Cup history, and the quality of play has been outstanding. If only the finishing could match the ball movement and the defensive steel.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, is loaded with talent but not playing well. As noted here a few days ago, you’d rather face a team like that than one with less depth but strong chemistry and momentum. Senegal, which finished second in the Netherlands’ group, is an example of the latter. The Lions of Teranga are unlucky to be facing England, but that should be a great game.

I think the U.S. has the tangibles and the intangibles to upset this Dutch team, and I’d say that regardless of Christian Pulisic’s health. The same goes for striker Josh Sargent, who suffered an ankle injury in the Iran game and also is officially day-to-day. Haji Wright is a better fit to start this game up top because of big Oranje centerback Virgil van Dijk, a star for his country and English club Liverpool.

» READ MORE: A scouting report on the Netherlands

But van Dijk is one of three reasons why I think the Netherlands ultimately will win this game. The other two are players in front of him. Midfielder Frenkie de Jong is an elite playmaker and tempo-controller. Forward Cody Gakpo is in scorching form, with a goal in each of his team’s three group stage games — and they all were really good goals.

When your team has a spine that good, it’s going to win games that matter against lesser opponents. The gap between the Netherlands and the U.S. isn’t as big as it used to be, but it exists.

Might it be made a little smaller by a flu outbreak in the Dutch camp over the last few days, with De Jong among the afflicted? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my overall perspective.

In an NCAA basketball tournament, you go looking for upsets in the bracket. In a World Cup, you pick the favorites. So the favorite is the pick here, handing the U.S. a noble defeat that will start the countdown to 2026.

Prediction: Netherlands 2, United States 1. Maybe in extra time.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic is a USMNT hero at the World Cup, but he’s not alone

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