Call it what you will, nerve-wracking or sheer nerves during the final 20 minutes of the United States Men’s National Team’s FIFA World Cup Group B finale against Iran on Tuesday, but the last stretch was anything but bearable.
However, after 99 grueling minutes of action including nine minutes of stoppage time in Doha, Qatar, all that mattered was the result: USA 1, Iran 0. A gutsy defensive effort was needed to secure the win, but for the first time since 2014 the Americans will head to the knockout stage, having finished second in the group with five points. England topped it with seven.
Christian Pulisic’s goal in the 38th minute was the difference. He crashed the box and got on the end of a cross from defender Sergiño Dest.
The U.S. is set to square off against the Netherlands in the Round of 16 at 8 a.m. MT Saturday on FOX.
Here are three takeaways from the U.S. win.
Tenacity takes center stage
The questions surrounding this team have been endless. Two things were undoubtedly true entering the tournament: How young they were (the second-youngest team in Qatar), but also, how talented they were. But the intangibles — grit, spirit and tenacity? Those were hallmarks of older World Cup teams and why the U.S. often punched above its weight.
Tuesday, this young team proved they had those same qualities needed to advance, too.
With nine minutes of stoppage time for the defense to hold out, USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter went with five defensive players at the back line, sensing Iran was on the front foot. He brought on Walker Zimmerman, a surprise off the bench who had a clearance off-the-line late on, while debutant Cameron Carter-Vickers looked steady along with 35-year-old Tim Ream, who shined again. At the end of the full-time whistle, the Americans collapsed to the pitch exhausted.
Next up, the Dutch
Looking at the bigger picture, while it was masterful defending, Berhalter and his staff knows his team will have to be better in the final third. The U.S. created 12 shots, five of which were on target but if it weren’t for Pulisic crashing the box, it might have been different. The U.S. peppered Iran with chances in the first half, a similar story against England and Wales. However, fans don’t have to be statisticians to know that two goals in three games isn’t good enough.
Hope rings again
Now that the drama of the group stage is over, it presents the U.S. coaches and players with a phrase often echoed in March, not early December: Why not us?
In this case, it’s: Why not the U.S.?
The U.S. has not reached the quarterfinals since 2002 and were eliminated in its two previous Round of 16 games (losses to Ghana and Belgium, both of which were after extra time). Seeing how they suffered Tuesday to get a result was significant, but the knockout stage, with everything on the line, will test the group in ways not yet known.
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