DOHA, Qatar – When this World Cup journey began, with a band of young charges and a measure of fresh ambition, the U.S. men’s national soccer team knew with high certainty its hopes of qualifying for the knockout stage would come down to a brave performance in the last group match.
Few teams advance after two games, and given its age and experience, the third act would test the program’s progress and mettle after missing the tournament four years ago.
That critical moment arrived Tuesday, and in a game that only a victory would suffice to reach the knockout round, the Americans received a courageous goal by star forward Christian Pulisic late in the first half and defeated Iran, 1-0, before 42,127 at a madhouse called Al Thumama Stadium.
By finishing second in Group B, the United States (1-0-2) earned a round-of-16 meeting Saturday with the Netherlands, which won Group A with a 2-0-1 record. With a 3-0 victory over last-place Wales, England (2-0-1) topped Group B and advanced to face Senegal (2-1-0), the Group B runner-up.
The biggest U.S. men’s match in 8 1/2 years – the last time it played in the World Cup – was a tense affair that turned in the 38th minute when Pulisic scored from close range before smashing into the goalkeeper and tumbling in agony. He played the rest of the half but was replaced at halftime with an abdominal injury.
The second half was full of high drama and great theater as the fatigued Americans absorbed heavy pressure and desperately defended. The final whistle brought relief, collapsing players and celebration.
The game came amid long-standing political tensions that were recently inflamed by the U.S. Soccer Federation, which altered the Iranian flag – it displayed the colors but not a symbol in the middle of the flag associated with Iran’s clerical leaders – on its social media accounts. The governing body said it made the changes to show support for Iranian women fighting for greater rights.
Though the USSF backtracked, Iranian authorities demanded FIFA expel the United States from the tournament. FIFA did not take any action.
U.S. men’s national team Coach Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams spent much of their pregame news conference Monday fielding questions from Iranian reporters about non-soccer issues, including U.S. military policy.
The match also fell 24 1/2 years after the sides collided in a politically charged World Cup match in France, won by Iran, 2-1.
Hours before kickoff Tuesday, fans supporting both sides congregated outside the stadium, the U.S. supporters in red, white and blue and the Iranian backers in red, white and green. The anticipation for this match began after the draw placed the teams in the same group in April, then accelerated after Friday’s results left both in contention for the next round.
Berhalter made two lineup changes: In a surprise, center back Cameron Carter-Vickers made his tournament debut in place of Walker Zimmerman – a coach’s decision, not an injury – and striker Josh Sargent regained his spot after yielding to Haji Wright against England on Friday.
With an average age of 24 years, 321 days, the U.S. starting lineup was the youngest of any team in any game at this tournament. The United States has fielded the three youngest lineups in the World Cup – despite center back Tim Ream, 35, starting every game.
For the first time in history, all 11 U.S. starters were from European clubs.
The first half tested U.S. patience and resolve. Iran sat back with everyone behind the ball, letting the Americans keep possession before launching occasional counterattacks. The U.S. defense cleaned up any brewing threats.
In the attack, the United States worked the ball side to side and used combinations in the middle of the field. The outside backs, Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson, pushed high and tried to beat players on the dribble and swing in crosses. Iran, though, had flooded the zone with humans, leaving the Americans small, closing pockets in which to operate.
Chances came and went, shots from distance rocketing off target and set pieces missing their targets. With their tactics working, the Iranians remained firm with their plans.
The breakthrough finally came in the 38th minute. Weston McKennie, whose service had been on and off to that point, sent a perfectly weighted ball to Dest deep on the right side. Dest headed the ball across the six-yard box, where the hard-charging Pulisic volleyed it into the net before crashing violently into goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
As the Americans celebrated, Pulisic twisted in agony inside the goal. Medical personnel rushed to his side.
With Pulisic receiving treatment on the sideline, unclear whether he could return, the United States played shorthanded for a few minutes. He did return but was clearly in a lot of pain and struggled to run. The USSF later said that Pulisic was taken to a hospital for scans.
Facing a deficit, Iran needed to change its approach. It turned proactive, which upped the pace of the match but also created more space for the United States to exploit.
The lead appeared to double just before intermission, when McKennie set up Tim Weah rushing in alone for a one-touch finish with the outside of his right foot. The offside flag, however, was up. Weah was, indeed, offside by half his body.
When play resumed after intermission, Pulisic was not on the pitch, replaced by Brenden Aaronson.
The second half looked nothing like the first. Iran had to play, and it found room to operate. Saman Ghoddos had two close calls inside the box.
Berhalter fortified his midfield in the 65th minute by adding the defensive-minded Kellyn Acosta for McKennie.
Four minutes later, U.S. midfielder Yunus Musah wasted a 23-yard free kick.
Iranian Coach Carlos Queiroz added fresh legs. This began to take on an eerily familiar feel: Eight days earlier, the United States failed to stretch the lead in the first half before fading in the second and surrendering Gareth Bale’s penalty kick in the 82nd minute.
A hard fall ended Sargent’s night and Wright entered. Berhalter freshened the defensive effort by adding Zimmerman and right back Shaq Moore at the expense of Dest and Weah. Five players manned the backline, four in midfield.
During stoppage time, Ramin Rezaeian’s diving header streaked narrowly wide of the near post. Zimmerman cleared a ball from behind goalkeeper Matt Turner on a play the Iranians yelled for a foul on Carter-Vickers in the box.
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