KHOR, Qatar — In soccer, there are ties that feel like victories and ties that feel like defeats. The United States has experienced one of each in the group stage of this World Cup.
Nothing good, however, would come from another draw on the final day of Group B play Tuesday. The United States (two points) must beat Iran (three points) to finish in the top two and advance to the round of 16. With a loss or tie, this World Cup adventure ends.
When the 32-team competition began, getting out of the group was the threshold for modest success after missing the 2018 tournament and infusing the roster with young players. Now the Americans are in position to finish their first mission.
“We’re not going to overthink it,” defender Tim Ream said. “We win, we’re in.”
England (four points) leads the group and by beating Wales (one) would clinch first. A draw also would secure passage to the next stage. The only way the Three Lions would not finish first or second would be if they lost to the Dragons by a lopsided score and wasted their hefty goal differential (the first tiebreaker).
The outcome of England vs. Wales, though, will have no bearing on the U.S. cause. It’s three points or bust.
“It’s clear now,” U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Anytime you’re in a World Cup and you get to go into the last group game controlling your destiny, that’s a pretty good thing.”
The last time the United States was in such a World Cup predicament was in 2010 in South Africa. That campaign also began with a pair of draws, including one against England. Needing three points in the group finale against Algeria, the Americans were on the precipice of elimination when Landon Donovan scored one of the most famous goals in U.S. soccer history — a desperate, full-field team surge in stoppage time that sparked wild celebrations on the Pretoria pitch and back home.
On a 2022 squad packed with players in their late teens and early 20s, that moment was the one cited most frequently when they have been asked to recount their first or best World Cup memory. Donovan is now part of the Fox Sports announcing team in Qatar.
“Hopefully not as dramatic as that goal,” captain Tyler Adams, 23, said of Tuesday’s prospects. “I don’t want to leave it till the end.”
The Americans have left it to the last game, with not a sliver of room for error, because they’re not scoring goals. Defensively, they have been terrific, conceding only a penalty kick. But the scoring drought that haunted them through much of the nervy World Cup qualifying campaign has festered since the summer.
“At times, we wanted to get even deeper and get the ball in front of goal and give them real problems,” Berhalter said Friday. “But you know, at this level goals aren’t easy.”
They have not come easy against a variety of opponents. In the past seven matches, the United States has been blanked four times and posted multiple goals once — against Grenada, No. 173 in FIFA’s rankings.
Another empty performance will send them home.
An ambitious first-half performance against Wales yielded a goal by Tim Weah, assisted flawlessly by Christian Pulisic. The second half was a slog.
On Friday, the United States created more high-quality opportunities than England, a surprising development given lingering U.S. issues and England’s 6-2 romp over Iran four days earlier. Again, though, the Americans were missing that finishing touch.
The Three Lions were panned for their performance. The Sun’s headline said, “Yawn in the USA.” The Daily Mail declared, “Boring, Boring England!” and the Evening Standard called it a “Reality Check as England second-best to USA in deflating World Cup draw.”
Berhalter stopped short of calling Friday’s match a grand success because, “you need the score to win the game, and we didn’t do that.”
“We’re close a number of times, and we put a lot of pressure on them,” he said. “And we want to keep getting better in this tournament, and that’s our goal.”
There was no pun intended by Berhalter, who, in his only lineup change after the Wales game, swapped strikers: Haji Wright for Josh Sargent. One of 10 shots against England was on target, not including Pulisic’s bid off the crossbar.
“If you create 100 chances, at least one of them is going to go in eventually,” said midfielder Weston McKennie, who squandered a golden chance in the first half. “The most important thing was that we created the chances and that we can be a threat. And that will just build.”
On Tuesday, the Americans will also have to match Iran’s spirit. Team Melli rebounded from the disaster against England to perform with high energy and untethered belief in a 2-0 victory over 10-man Wales. Both goals came in second-half stoppage time, just rewards after attacking with gusto all afternoon and clanging the posts twice in rapid succession during a second-half flurry.
The Iranians were also coping with unrest back home and the arrest of a well-known player, Voria Ghafouri, for protesting against the Tehran regime. (He is not on the World Cup squad.)
Since the World Cup draw in April, the United States-Iran game has been framed as not just a sporting event but a clash of political enemies. On Friday, Berhalter played that down.
“I played in three different countries, and I coached in Sweden,” he said. “And the thing about soccer is you meet so many different people from around the world, and you’re united by the common love of the sport of soccer. I envision the game being hotly contested for the fact that both teams want to advance to the next round, not because of politics or relations in our country. We’re soccer players, and we’re going to compete. They’re going to compete, and that’s it.”
World Cup in Qatar
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Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.
Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.