DOHA, Qatar - Though the U.S. men got a test run with their win-or-go-home game against Iran, the knockout rounds are officially here.
First up is a round-of-16 game Saturday against the Netherlands. The Dutch were finalists in 2010, losing in overtime to Spain. While that "golden generation" has long since moved on - Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie are gone, and the Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup - the Dutch are still a formidable opponent.
They conceded just one goal on their way to winning Group A and are unbeaten since Louis van Gaal returned as coach in August 2021.
So how does the USMNT beat the Netherlands and advance to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2002? Here are three keys:
More big moments from Christian Pulisic
Yes, Christian Pulisic scored the game-winner against Iran. And then took a knee to his pelvic bone in a full-speed collision with the goalkeeper. The entire sequence is one of those highlight-reel moments that will be replayed for the rest of his career.
But Pulisic said he still hopes to make a bigger mark in this tournament.
Despite the talent around him, he remains the USMNT's most dangerous player, and a goal - especially an early one - would go a long way in setting the tone for the Americans.
"I want to make big plays and do what I can to help this team," Pulisic said Thursday. "But by no means do I want that (Iran goal) to be the only thing to look back on from this tournament. There's still a lot ahead of me, for this team and myself."
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Defense wins championships
The USMNT's defense has been the standout for the team this tournament, not conceding a single goal against the run of play.
Goalkeeper Matt Turner and the backline have been spectacular, closing down every open space when the opponent has gotten into the final third. Sergino Dest has been a dynamo, ranging up and down the left side of the field but always being exactly where he needs to be.
But defending is a communal effort for the USMNT - and it will have to be to slow down the Netherlands. Cody Gakpo has scored three goals already, tied for the lead in the tournament, and Davy Klaassen is a master facilitator.
There's also Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay and … well you get the picture.
"Just top-end talent," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Friday.
But the USMNT faced a similar situation against England, which is even more loaded with Marcus Rashford, Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane, and the Americans held that crew scoreless.
"It's about team defending. Working as a unit, moving collectively," Berhalter said. "When we do that, we put opponents in difficult positions where they can't access the spaces they want to access. That's what we've been good at in this tournament so far."
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Prepare for a long game
Unlike in the group stage, when games can end in ties, there has to be a winner in knockout games. If a game is tied at the end of regulation, there will be 30 minutes of overtime, broken up into two halves. If the score is still tied after that, it goes to penalty kicks.
That means teams could be on the field for 120 minutes - even longer given the "generous" penalty time we've seen at this World Cup. So even more thought needs to be given to fresh legs and fitness when making substitutions, and players need to be prepared to gut through cramps, physical exhaustion and mental fatigue to get a favorable result.
"It's a physical battle, but all the games have been," U.S. captain Tyler Adams said.
Players off the bench also need to be prepared to provide a psychological boost in addition to doing their jobs tactically.
"I knew, being a sub, I had energy to give," said Walker Zimmerman, who came on in the 82nd minute against Iran and made a game-saving clearance at the end of stoppage time. "I wanted to continue to reinforce that energy amongst the guys who'd been out there suffering through 90 minutes. I wanted to let them know, 'Hey, we've got an influx of energy through our subs. We're going to see this game out. You guys have got to keep pushing and we'll get the job done.' "
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup USA vs. Netherlands: USMNT's keys to beating Dutch Saturday