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.
That critical moment arrived Tuesday, and in a game where 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 raucous 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. Iran (1-2-0) would have advanced with a draw. In the other group match, England’s 3-0 victory over last-place Wales left the Three Lions (2-0-1) atop Group B and onto the next stage against Senegal (2-1-0), the Group A runner-up.
“What I saw from the group was tremendous amount of focus, especially leading into the game; you could tell they’re locked in,” U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “The end of the game is really what I’m most proud of, because it’s the mark of determination and extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there, and get the win and not buckle.”
The biggest U.S. men’s match in 8½ 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 what a team spokesman said was a pelvic contusion.
The Chelsea forward was taken to the hospital for scans and was back at the team hotel before the U.S. squad returned from the stadium. He is listed as day-to-day.
After the game, the team communicated with Pulisic via FaceTime. “He’s in good spirits,” Berhalter said.
“I sent [Pulisic] a text and checked on him and he said, ‘Best believe I’ll be ready on Saturday,’ ” midfielder Weston McKennie said.
The 38th-minute goal, Pulisic’s 22nd in 55 international matches, came after McKennie sent a perfectly weighted ball to Sergiño 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, his return in doubt, the United States played shorthanded for a few minutes. He got back on the field before the half was out but was clearly in a lot of pain and struggled to run.
“He would do anything for this team in order for us to win,” captain Tyler Adams said. “He’s so huge a player for us. Praying for him, hoping everything is okay. He’s hanging in there. I know he’ll do anything to play in the next game.”
The second half was full of high drama and great theater as the fatigued Americans absorbed heavy pressure, defending with desperation. The final whistle brought relief, collapsing players and celebration.
“There’s going to be moments where things get a little bit squeaky,” defender Tim Ream said. “But I looked around and saw everybody had calm faces. No one was breathing heavy and had panic in their eyes.”
For the first time in program history, the United States has posted two shutouts in a World Cup. The only goal it has conceded in the tournament was a penalty kick in the opener against Wales.
“You’re going to have to suffer a lot during these games because that’s part of the game,” Adams said. “Once you get a one-goal lead, one goal can be very, very decisive. So how you manage that, how you cope with the pressure, it’s obviously stressfuly, but one thing we can count on in these moments is our defense, and it has been superb.”
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.
Berhalter and 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 24½ years after the sides collided in a politically charged World Cup match in France, won by Iran, 2-1. In that game, the Iranians played with more passion — something Berhalter shared with his players in the buildup to Tuesday’s game.
“It was clear from the opening whistle, you saw we were really aggressive, we believed in ourselves, believed in what we’re doing,” Berhalter said.
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 the 35-year-old Ream starting every game.
The first half tested U.S. patience and resolve. Iran sat back, 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, Dest and Antonee Robinson, pushed high and tried to beat players on the dribble and swing in crosses. Iran, though, had flooded the zone, 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. Then came the goal, the first of the tournament for Pulisic, the team’s most famous player and a member of the squad that failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament.
Facing a deficit, Iran changed its approach, turning proactive and upping the pace of the match. The tactical shift 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, Brenden Aaronson had taken Pulisic’s place.
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.
The match began to take on an eerily familiar feel: Eight days earlier against Wales, the United States failed to stretch the lead in the first half before fading in the second and surrendering Gareth Bale’s late penalty kick.
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.
“You see how resilient this group is, you see how unified this group is, you see what type of energy and output they put into every single game,” Berhalter said. “And then along the way there’s some pretty good soccer. That’s the American spirit, and the way this group plays, people will appreciate that, especially back home.”
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