The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) had to work hard for its spot in the knockout stages of the World Cup, earning a hard-fought 1-0 victory over Iran in a harrowing Group B decider at Qatar 2022.
Christian Pulisic’s first half goal was all that separated the two teams as the USMNT reached the Round of 16 for the first time since 2014.
The pressure was certainly on Gregg Berhalter’s team in Qatar after the national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but the USA got the job done with three courageous performances in the group stage.
It certainly wasn’t pretty at times, in particular the final moments against Iran, but progressing through the group stage was the bare minimum for this exciting young team.
There will be some worries in the knockout stages, however, after Pulisic suffered an abdominal injury scoring the winning goal.
The USMNT are hoping their star player, dubbed ‘Captain America’ by some, will be fit for the Round of 16 tie against the Netherlands on Saturday following news that Pulisic has been sent to hospital for a checkup.
This was the only third meeting between the two nations and their first World Cup clash since France 1998 – a politically charged match that saw Iran emerge as a shock 2-1 winner.
It was the first time that Iran and the US, sometimes officially described in Iran as the ‘Great Satan’, had met on the football pitch and the biggest sporting occasion between the countries since the 1979 revolution.
The build-up to this game in Qatar was equally tense, with Iran even calling for the USMNT to be expelled from the World Cup after the US Soccer Federation posted an Iranian flag without the emblem of the Islamic Republic on its social media platforms to show support for protesters in Iran.
USMNT manager Berhalter and Captain Tyler Adams also faced some tough questions from Iranian journalists at a fiery press conference, brushing off accusations of hypocrisy and disrespect.
The furore surrounding this game only heightened the drama of a clash that – even far from off-pitch trouble – would certainly be fraught with tension.
The two teams knew that a victory would guarantee a place in the round of 16, but for the USMNT, not even a draw would be enough to pass from the group.
There weren’t many signs of nervousness at the start of the USMNT, as Berhalter’s side dictated the game in the opening minutes – with 65% possession – although it took until the 28th minute to create the first notable chance.
Josh Sargeant’s long-range shot deflected off an Iranian defender and landed neatly in the path of Timothy Weah, who perhaps didn’t realize he was alone in front of goal and headed in a header that Alireza Beiranvand in the Iran goal caught with ease .
On the half-hour mark, Weah once again took up a brilliant position inside the penalty area, but went well over the crossbar after being set up by Sargeant.
Pressure from the USMNT ended up scoring seven minutes before half-time, taking the lead following an incisive team move.
Weston McKennie’s accurate field ball was headed back into goal by the sacker Sergiño Dest and bravely bundled home by Pulisic, who suffered a heavy collision with Beiranvand as he flicked the ball over the line.
The USMNT’s elation quickly turned to concern as it was evident that Pulisic was in severe pain after the encounter, limping badly as he was helped off the field by two medics.
Pulisic was soon back on the field, but the Chelsea man was clearly still struggling with the knock.
As the USMNT grew in confidence, spaces began to open up in Iran’s defense and Weah thought he had doubled his team’s lead just before half-time, finishing beautifully with the outside of the boot, only to be met by the linesman’s flag for the narrowest of offside decisions.
While Iran were happy to weather that storm in the first half, it was a surprisingly subdued performance – particularly after Pulisic’s goal – from a team that caused defensive problems for both England and Wales in their first two matches.
Iran started the second half with more authority, creating two brilliant chances for Saman Ghoddos, but the Brentford striker was unable to trouble USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner.
With the clock ticking, Iran had a glorious chance to level the score, but Morteza Pouraliganji’s header narrowly missed the far post, much to the relief of the American fans in the stands, many of whom had their heads in their hands.
There were strong calls for a penalty from the Iranian players towards the end of nine minutes of stoppage time, with Mehdi Taremi insisting that Cameron Carter-Vickers had pulled the Porto striker down as he tried to connect a cross.
After a brief and tense check, the VAR decided that it was not a penalty and shortly afterwards referee Mateu Lahoz blew the whistle to end the match.
The two teams fell – for very different reasons – but the USMNT knows it needs to improve if it wants to have a chance of advancing further in Qatar.
After the defeat, an emotional Saeid Ezatolahi asked the Iranian fans for forgiveness.
Iran were in a strong position going into the final game after their crucial 2-0 win over Wales, needing only a draw to progress, but they turned in a disappointing performance with a place in the knockout stages at stake.
“I’m sorry on behalf of our players, of our group, that we didn’t have the opportunity to qualify for the next stage”, said the midfielder.
“Life and football go on and this could be a good lesson for us, at least for young players like me in the future. So I hope our fans and our people in Iran will forgive us and I’m sorry, that’s it.”
Iran coach Carlos Quieroz said “the dream is over”, but he is already looking to the future.
“The first half was for the US and the second for Iran,” said Quieroz, who is Iran’s longest-serving coach, having managed the team from 2011 to 2019, before returning for a second spell in charge in September.
“The difference [was] we didn’t score in the second half as we should have. But, the dream is over. Now it’s time to think about the next step for Iran”, added Quieroz, the only coach to have taken the team to consecutive World Cups.