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Bring on Gakpo! How the USMNT defense became one of the World Cup's meanest

12:30 AM IST 03/12/22
Gakpo USMNT slpit
The Netherlands attacker is the breakout star of the World Cup but Gregg Berhalter's brilliant backline is capable of shutting him down on Saturday.

We've all heard the famous saying about an irresistible force meeting an immovable object. And we're all going to see it play out on Saturday at Khalifa International Stadium.

That irresistible force is one Cody Gakpo, the world's most in-form attacker. The Dutch starlet has taken his game into a new stratosphere, dominating the Eredivisie before making the World Cup his playground with three goals in as many games.

He has 21 goal contributions in 14 Eredivisie games this season and he's scored with his left, right and his head since arriving in Qatar.

Gakpo, statistically, is the best attacker in the world right now.

As for the immovable object, meet the U.S. men's national team's defense. Three games, one goal, none from open play. They've stifled the likes of Harry Kane and, at least mostly, Gareth Bale. Pretty good competition by any stretch.

They've survived periods in which they've dominated and periods in which they've been dominated. Three different centerbacks have started, and each has had a part to play in leading the USMNT to the knockout stages.

The USMNT, statistically, is right there among the best defensive teams in this World Cup. Entering Friday's games, every other team that has finished the group stage has conceded at least once from open play.

So, now what?

It's hard to reduce a game like Saturday's round-of-16 clash between the USMNT and the Netherlands to one matchup, simply because there are too many storylines to keep track of.

There's Sergino Dest's clash with his home country and Gregg Berhalter's extended stay in Holland as a player. There's the injury to Christian Pulisic, the illness of Frenkie de Jong. Memphis Depay is in the news for trying to choose his own partner up top, while the USMNT's striker situation remains very much in flux.

It'll take a combination of things for either side to win this game and book their quarterfinal spot but, in many ways, looking at Gakpo's battle with the USMNT defense is a good place to start.

The dynamic 23-year-old is arguably the star of this World Cup, at least so far. He was already making waves with his play for PSV, but the hype has reached overdrive in Qatar.

At some point soon, some Premier League club will pay a bazillion dollars for him. That's what happens when you perform in the way he has. Gakpo is actually that damn good.

He hasn't had as many chances as some other forwards, but he surely hasn't wasted the ones he's gotten. Gakpo is one of those players that needs just one opportunity to change a game and, ultimately, a World Cup.

So, how does the USMNT counteract that? Well, Berhalter has been doing his homework.

"We've been watching Holland for the last 11 months, watching all their games," he said. "We've had multiple people at their group stage games watching live with the wide angle, so we're gonna do a deep dive on them.

"All the information was presented to us immediately after the game against Iran and we were able to start preparing."

"We're looking at how they play, at what they do, how they create chances, how they press," Berhalter continued. "Every face of the play, we're analyzing. We're looking at set pieces, the whole thing."

Credit to Berhalter and his scouting team for how the U.S. has been able to neutralize opponents so far. But credit to the players themselves, too, all of whom have stepped up to a level few saw coming.

The centerbacks deserve plenty of credit, especially Tim Ream. How good has he been? For a player that, just a few months ago, was nowhere near the national team picture, Ream has been better than anyone could have ever imagined.

During this World Cup, he's been partnered by two different teammates. Walker Zimmerman started against Wales and England before coming on late against Iran to swat away cross after cross.

Cameron Carter-Vickers, meanwhile, stepped in against Iran, with Berhalter pointing to his ability to play against a team in a low block thanks to his time at Celtic.

It hasn't just been the centerbacks, though. Dest has been marvelous at fullback, looking like a completely different player than the one that was, to put it lightly, disinterested when it came to defending for several years.

Antonee Robinson has been his steady self but Tyler Adams has gone supersonic, emerging as an elite defensive midfielder at the most elite level.

When you add in the pressing work done by Haji Wright and Josh Sargent up top, you get a clear vision of how the U.S. defend: with everyone doing their part.

That is how you generally stop a player like Gakpo. You don't stop him when he gets the ball; you stop him before he gets it. And the USMNT defense has put that line of thinking on full display twice this tournament.

Against Wales, the U.S. put Bale in an on-pitch prison cell. He was constantly surrounded by Zimmerman, Ream and the three midfielders. Whenever the ball would go anywhere near him, the door would slam shut, taking away Bale as an option.

Then, against England, the U.S. earmarked the centerbacks as the initiators of the Three Lions attack, so they hounded them, not allowing John Stones or Harry Maguire to play with the ball.

It led to a disjointed attacking performance from England as the job was made easier for those deeper in defense thanks to the work of those up front.

The USMNT will need to apply those principles against the Netherlands. They'll need to put Virgil van Dijk under pressure. They'll need to surround midfield playmaker De Jong.

And, most importantly, they'll have to make sure that Gakpo never, ever gets the ball in a place where he can make something happen.

"They have some real talent with Memphis Depay and Gakpo and [Steven] Bergwijn, just really top-end talent," Berthalter said, "but for us, it's about the collective.

"The backline has done a great job. The goalkeeper has done a great job, but it's about team defending, working as a unit, moving collectively.

"And when we do that, we put the opponent in difficult positions where they can't access the spaces they want to access. I think that's been what we've been good at so far."

It's never that easy though, is it? The whole world knows about Gakpo, and Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal knows that the whole world knows about Gakpo. The Dutch boss isn't going to sit back and let things play out; he's going to put his players in a position to shine.

He's no doubt been watching hours of film on the U.S. after admitting that, prior to arriving in Qatar, he'd never seen Berhalter's side play.

"If you watch them play, it's crystal clear they've had opportunities," Van Gaal said. "I don't think it's a surprise to be quite honest.

"The USA has an excellent 'team'. I would say one of the best 'teams', fine-tuned. It's going to be a very tough match. But it's nothing we can't overcome. We also have a good team, that's my view.

"We'll have to wait and see in this match which of the two squads is the best. I'm not going to downplay the USA. On the contrary, they're an example of what a good team is supposed to be."

As Van Gaal says, this will be a battle of two talented teams. On paper, the Netherlands may have slightly more quality, but you can't write off a U.S. team that has already gone toe-to-toe with England.

And, in a World Cup, you can never write off a team that has had a defense like the USMNT's. It's hard to lose if you don't concede, right?

Saturday's game will likely be a tight, tense affair defined by battles all over the field. The most important of those battles will be between Gakpo and a USMNT defense that will be designed to keep him quiet. They've kept superstars quiet before, though.

Who wins, then? Does the force of Gakpo finally meet resistance? Can the Dutch starlet move the immovable?

We're about to find out...