The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) had to work hard for their place in the knockout rounds of the World Cup, winning a tough 1-0 win over Iran in a nerve-wracking Group B decider at Qatar 2022.
Christian Pulisic’s goal in the first half was all that separated the two teams as the USMNT reached the round of 16 for the first time since 2014.
Pressure was certainly on Gregg Berhalter’s side in Qatar after the national team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but the USA got the job done with three dismal group performances.
It certainly wasn’t pretty at times, especially in the closing stages against Iran, but progressing through the group stage was the minimum expectation for this exciting young team.
However, there will be some concerns in the knockout stages after Pulisic sustained an abdominal injury scoring the winner.
The USMNT is hoping their star, dubbed by some as ‘Captain America’, is fit for Saturday’s round of 16 match against the Netherlands after it was revealed Pulisic had been taken to hospital for a check-up.
This was only the third meeting between the two nations and their first World Cup since France 1998 – a politically charged match from which Iran emerged as a surprise 2-1 winner.
It was the first time Iran and the United States, sometimes officially referred to in Iran as the “Great Satan,” met on the soccer field and was the largest sporting event between the countries since the 1979 revolution.
Preparation for that match in Qatar was similarly tense, with Iran even calling for the USMNT to be banned from the World Cup after the US Football Association posted an Iranian flag without the Islamic Republic’s emblem on its social media platforms to protesters in Iran support.
USMNT manager Berhalter and Captain Tyler Adams also answered some tough questions from Iranian journalists in a fiery press conference, deflecting accusations of hypocrisy and disrespect.
The excitement surrounding this game only added to the drama of a matchup that — even in a vacuum away from off-field issues — was guaranteed to be tense.
Both teams knew that a win would secure them a place in the round of 16, but even a draw would not be enough for the USMNT to climb out of the group.
USMNT didn’t show much initial nervousness as Berhalter’s side dictated play in the early stages – they had 65% possession – but it wasn’t until the 28th minute that they created the first significant chance.
Josh Sargeant’s long-range shot deflected an Iranian defender and landed perfectly on Timothy Weah, who perhaps didn’t realize he was all alone in front of goal, rushing a header that Alireza Beiranvand caught easily in the Iranian goal.
After half an hour, Weah again found a brilliant position in the penalty area but shot his skis well over the bar after being set up by Sargeant.
The pressure from the USMNT finally showed up seven minutes before half-time and took the lead after an incisive team movement.
Weston McKennie’s spot-on cross was headed back over goal by marauding Sergiño Dest and valiantly brought home by Pulisic, who suffered a violent clash with Beiranvand as he spun the ball over the line.
The USMNT’s joy quickly turned to concern as it was evident that Pulisic was in significant pain following the collision and had a severe limp when two paramedics helped him off the field.
Pulisic soon re-entered the pitch but the Chelsea man was obviously still struggling with the tapping.
As the USMNT’s confidence grew, spaces began to open up in the Iranian defense and Weah thought he had doubled his team’s lead just before the break, finishing beautifully with the outside of his boot only to be caught by the linesman’s flag close to being made offside decisions.
Although Iran would have liked to weather that first-half storm, it was a surprisingly subdued performance – particularly after Pulisic’s goal – from a side that had troubled both England and Wales defensively in their first two games.
Iran started the second half with more confidence, creating two brilliant chances for Saman Ghoddos, but the Brentford striker failed to trouble USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner.
As the clock ticked down, Iran had a glorious chance to level, but Morteza Pouraliganji’s header went just wide of the far post, much to the relief of the American fans in the stands, many of whom had their heads in their hands.
Toward the end of nine minutes of added time, there were loud calls for a penalty from the Iranian players, with Mehdi Taremi insisting that Cameron Carter-Vickers had tripped the Porto striker trying to find a cross.
After a brief, tense check, VAR ruled it was not a penalty and moments later referee Mateu Lahoz blew the whistle to end the game.
Both teams fell to the bottom – for very different reasons – but the USMNT will know that improved performance is necessary if they want any chance of progressing further in Qatar.
After the defeat, an emotional Said Ezatolahi begged the Iranian fans for forgiveness.
Iran were in a strong position after a crucial 2-0 win against Wales before the last game and only needed a draw to progress, but put in a disappointing performance as a knockout round berth was at stake game stood.
“I’m very sorry on behalf of our players, our group, that we didn’t take our chance to qualify for the next round,” said the midfielder.
“Life and football go on and that can be a good lesson for us going forward, at least for the young players like me. So I hope our fans and our people in Iran will forgive us and I’m just sorry, that’s it.”
Iran coach Carlos Quieroz said “the dream is over” but is already looking to the future.
“The first half belonged to the US and the second half to Iran,” said Quieroz, Iran’s longest-serving coach, who managed the team from 2011 to 2019 before returning for a second term in September.
“The difference [was] We didn’t score like we should in the second half. But the dream is over. Now we are thinking about the next step for Iran,” added Quieroz, who is the only coach to have led the team to consecutive World Cups.