Doha, Qatar- Christian Pulisic scored the goal that beat Iran 1-0 and took the United States in the knockout stage world Cup Tuesday night, and that’s really all anyone needs to know.
Because that was it, an all-or-nothing game, where winning was everything and everything else was failure. Pulisic, the superstar figurehead of this young American team, saw this equation, liked it and decided to go for the “winning” option.
He also paid the price. All Americans under Gregg Berhalter showed heroic spirit and fierce determination at Al Thumama Stadium, but Pulisic put his body on the line in the most devilish way to secure the game’s only goal.
In the 38th minute, nearing the end of a first half that had brought only frustration with Iran’s misguided commitment to full defense, Weston McKennie received the ball in midfield and was spotted straight away Sergino Dest rapidly advancing on the flank. McKennie’s floaty ball was nodded into the face of goal by Dest, and Pulisic won the run to bring it home a few yards.
Then… crunch. The 24-year-old American, already a Champions League winner with chelsea and seemingly destined for the top since breaking into the national team squad as a teenager, he collided with the Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and lying on the grass for several minutes.
He struggled until half-time, but failed to reappear after the break, being replaced by Brendan Aaronson. He was taken to hospital with an injury to his abdomen for scans. He had done enough, if you consider scoring the most immediately important goal by an American in 12 years to be “enough”.
Forward they then march, USA, to a round of 16 clash with the Netherlands Saturday, a match in which they will be a size underdog. Don’t dismiss them, however, and don’t underestimate the emotional boost that will come with it, a win in a game that has become plagued with political overtones in recent days.
Just before the break, they could have put the competition out of reach for Iran on a pair of breakaways, one where Josh Sargent and Timothee Weah failed to connect and another where Weah put the ball in the net, but was ruled offside.
Suddenly though, the task at hand had changed, for both teams. Iran could no longer sit and hold on, and pushed the men forward as they sought the equalizing goal needed to take their country to the knockout rounds for the first time in history .
In the 52nd minute, Saman Ghoddos had a six-yard header but headed it over the bar, under pressure from Dest to his shoulder.
Perhaps seeing the folly of Iranian head coach Carlos Queiroz’s ultra-cautious tactics, the Americans weren’t sitting in the lead, despite Iran’s proven effectiveness on the break with quick forwards. Mahdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun ready to pounce.
It was a different Iran now, there were no longer 10 players behind the ball like a defensive wall. No more taking forever on throw-ins and free kicks.
There were also new priorities for the Americans. Berhalter created a surprise when announcing his squad, introducing the defender Cameron Carter Vickers for his first action of the tournament and relegate Walker Zimmermann on the bench. Not, presumably, due to a defensive lapse, as Zimmerman had been excellent alongside Tim Rame in the 0-0 against Englandbut because of the potential threat of set pieces.
Now Carter-Vickers had to play his part to survive the onslaught, bracing up Mehdi Taremi as the striker advanced on goal.
Iran, however, were creating chances. Ghoddos, lively in midfield, received the ball unmarked in the box, but curled his shot a little more Matt Turner‘s bar.
Turner, barely required in the first half as possession fell almost exclusively to the Americans, became progressively busier. Earlier, with emotion etched on his face as he sang the pre-match anthem, he rubbed the flag across his chest.
Later, his face twisted again, this time in defiance, after Morteza Pouraliganji headed wide from a whipped free kick across the face of goal.
This, the nerve-wracking final moments, was the part that American fans hadn’t prepared for. With so much talk about the need to score goals in the build-up, part has been lost, the need to prevent them.
Deandre Yedlin and Josh Sargent embrace Iran’s Saeid Ezatolahi after the game. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Now it was essential. The ever-calm Turner was commanding in the box, one of his best moments being the unwavering way he clawed back a through pass, despite knowing he would take a shin boot from Taremi.
We have nothing without nothing. Same for him. Ditto for Pulisic. The price of victory. And so much better than the pain of failure.
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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.
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