AL RAYYAN, Qatar -- At first, Tyler Adams bent down with his hands on his knees. It was in that position of exhaustion, and not a moment before, that he was forced to confront reality. The United States' World Cup run was over. He dropped to a squat, ran his hands through the grass and sat down.
The whole sequence took only about four minutes and as Adams was embraced by several teammates, the victorious Netherlands squad celebrated its 3-1 win nearby. Frustration was the first emotion to set in. For Adams, his team had turned in the type of performance that could have earned a win on another day.
"I'm not going to sit here and say Holland was better than us," Adams said. "I would say that we dominated for a majority of the game. We made them uncomfortable for the majority of the game. It's frustrating."
In those other moments, though, the ones when the Dutch were doing the dominating, they had the poise and ruthlessness to make them count. It's a quality that separates the teams that can truly compete to win the World Cup from those that can only hope to in the future.
This was not a surprising exit for the US, nor an unjust one. The team didn't reach its ceiling, but they did come close. There were enough key moments that broke in favor of the Netherlands that will provide a lifetime of regret.
Such is the case for the once-every-four-years tournament. What if Christian Pulisic converted his early chance to go up 1-0? What if the Netherlands didn't score just before halftime? But as Adams sat there and processed what happened, his frustration was overcome by perspective.
"I think it's probably the first time in a long time where people will say, 'Wow, this team has something special,'" Adams said of the team's overall World Cup performance. "There's so many ups and downs in the past three years, and then when you put four performances like that out on the field, it really gives people something to be excited about. Potential is just potential, but you could see that if we maximize it in the right way that it can be something."
Herc Gomez feels Louis van Gaal tactically outmanaged Gregg Berhalter in USA's exit from the Qatar World Cup at the last 16 stage.
At a certain point, the United States' failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup won't be worth bringing up. However, there are still times when that lesson is worth revisiting. This is one. Roughly five years ago, the team finished in fifth out of six teams in the CONCACAF qualifying process to miss out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
It was an unfathomable low and justifiably ridiculed. Other than the emergence of Pulisic, nothing about that cycle generated anything worth being optimistic about. It seems so long ago now. The US took the second-youngest team to Qatar, used the youngest average starting XI and was, more often than not, the better team on the field by a decent margin.
Aside from 35-year-old Tim Ream, whose steadiness exemplified the value of experience, every major contributor should be closer to their expected peak when the United States co-hosts the tournament with Mexico and Canada in four years.
"It shows we've been talking about with the growth of the American player," center back Walker Zimmerman said. "How dynamic this team can be, the individuals that we have that create an exciting brand of soccer to watch.
"I think this World Cup showed that attacking talent, it showed that fight and I think a lot of American fans can look at that and be proud of the way that we played, the way that we went about our work. I think we'll be back hungrier than ever."
But, again, potential is just potential. The next four years will be among the most pivotal for the sport in American history. The same can be said about this national team. More young Americans are sure to break through at top European clubs and many of the ones who are there will see their careers take positive steps.
Frank Leboeuf criticizes USA's defending as the team crashed out of the Qatar World Cup to Netherlands in the last 16.
Major League Soccer has a big role to play, too. The professionalization and maturity of the league's development academies might be the single most important factor in expanding the pool of potential national team players.
Of course, these types of proclamations about soccer in the United States aren't new. During this World Cup we were reminded that in the late 1990s, current Iran coach Carlos Queiroz studied the US development model and issued a report with recommendations designed to help the US win the World Cup by 2010.
It was an absurd goal in hindsight -- and likely to most rational observers at the time -- but facts are, the deepest the men's team has progressed in the modern era was the trip to the quarterfinals in 2002, when it beat rival Mexico to get there. From a bottom-line standpoint, the US had not improved.
Success is often measured by expectations. That's why this year's performance should be celebrated. Getting out of the group was always going to be the benchmark measure, but in 2026 that will change. Part of that is because the format will change -- the tournament is expanding to 48 teams -- but more so because of what should be realistically possible based on the talent and experience the team will have.
And with that comes the obvious question: Will Gregg Berhalter still be the coach? That it needs to be asked isn't an indictment on the job Berhalter has done, it's the natural next step in evaluating what's best for any national team's future at the end of a World Cup cycle.
Berhalter has done a lot right. The results speak for themselves: qualified for the World Cup; got out of the group and looked mostly good doing it; beat Mexico in a pair of finals; established a culture players want to be a part of and recruited talented dual-nationals.
Those are all major accomplishments. But it's also hard to know where to assign credit. He is, after all, coaching the most talented generation of American players that has ever lived. That's where most of the criticism he receives stems from.
Of course they qualified. Of course they beat Mexico. Of course they advanced. Look at who is on the roster! It's a logical viewpoint. The players are the outsized reason for success or failure. Still, Berhalter's player selection, substitution patterns and the lack of in-game tactical adjustments were often questionable.
For all that talent we hear about and talk about, this was never a team that was consistently goal-dangerous, even against some of the minnows in CONCACAF. The US possessed the ball with more comfort, played out of the back and did a lot of things that represent progress, but it's hard to place too much value on those things when they don't come with an increase in goals. Some coaches are fits for different stages of a team's growth. And for the past few years, it's hard to argue Berhalter didn't adequately shepherd the team in the right direction.
At the same time, nothing about his coaching history indicates he's the best option to take the team to new heights. Someone who can do that is ultimately the person who should be coaching the team.
"We talked a lot about legacy and leaving a legacy," Zimmerman said. "That's what hurts. We felt like this was a group that could have done something that no American team had done before."
It's one thing for that to happen in Qatar with team a full of World Cup debutants. It would be something completely different for that to happen again in four years on home soil.