One thing we can say with certainty: The United States men’s national team didn’t take the easy road to the knockout rounds of the 2022 World Cup.
Needing a win against Iran to advance, up one goal in the game’s final minutes, the USMNT had its backs against the wall. Traffic was one way; all the U.S. could do in its deep defensive bunker was throw up some speed traps and detours. With Iran needing just one goal, it felt like much of America was bracing itself for its karmic payback from the 2010 World Cup. The nation of Landon Donovan was on the brink of getting Landon Donovan’d right out of the tournament.
To get to this theater of drama and dread, the U.S. first needed another hero moment, one that arrived a little earlier this time. Christian Pulisic’s decision-making is occasionally bewildering, and his set-piece delivery was once again poor, but you give him a free step into an open lane on the far side of the goal and he can punish you, just as he did against Mexico in World Cup qualifying.
His goal Tuesday was the best the U.S. has scored in some time. (The lack of recent options helps, but only a little. It was pretty good!) Iran had made clear in the opening 30 minutes where they wanted to engage the U.S. on the field, and Weston McKennie found time in a spot just outside that range to deliver a perfect floated ball to a streaking Sergiño Dest. Dest cushioned a header back across the middle, and Pulisic crashed it into the goal before crashing himself into Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
The collision would knock Pulisic out of the game after halftime, and would eventually send him to the hospital with what news reports were still calling “an abdominal injury,” which is as good a euphemism as any for what sure looked like a painful blow to the testicles. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few.
But his heroic sacrifice was nearly a Pyrrhic victory. After dominating throughout the first half, holding Iran to zero shots and countless cheap turnovers, the U.S. let Iran back into the game after the break, its third straight second period in which it couldn’t maintain its intensity. This time, it seemed to badly miss one of Pulisic’s worst habits: his tendency to put his foot on the ball and wait to see what the defense gives him. When the U.S. needs a goal, this can be a sequence killer; when it needs to catch its breath midway through the second half, it can be a lifesaver. His replacement Brenden Aaronson—who pinballs around the field like a Battlebot let loose in the arena—couldn’t provide this.
Aaronson has a valuable skillset for this team, but this wasn’t the game to showcase it. The U.S. had a few too many Chaos Muppets on the pitch—Aaronson and McKennie, who wasn’t great until he played that perfect hockey assist, most prominent among them—players who want the game to be open, who want to be blowing up opposing plays and charging forward the other way but can be careless, occasionally. As Iran started to wrest control away, what the Americans needed was someone to come in and provide Order—to pull the game’s pace back from 100 miles per hour both ways. Pulisic, by virtue of the respect that defenses have to show him, can do that for you in a way that Aaronson could not. Gio Reyna, as many, many fans on Twitter pointed out, could too, but Berhalter didn’t bring him off the bench, raising questions about whether there’s any chance Reyna will get to play significant minutes in this World Cup, especially if Pulisic’s injury limits him.
Instead, Berhalter opted for instituting additional structure the old-fashioned way: by retreating into a defensive crouch. He sent additional defenders on and had his team bunker in a 5-4-1 formation, ceding any hope of adding to the lead in the hopes of keeping Iran out of the American box. You could read it as a surrender, or an admission that the U.S. simply did not have the legs and the skill to regain the upper hand in this game. It was excruciating to watch. The official USMNT Twitter account had to remind people to continue to breathe. Hearts were done no favors. Blood pressures surged. Mom’s spaghetti threatened to spill onto sweaters from sea to shining sea.
But it worked. The U.S. held out against both Iran’s actual chances and their attempts to win cheap penalties. Walker Zimmerman, brought on late as a reinforcement, was excellent. Tim Ream continued his stellar defensive play, even when paired with relative newbie Cameron Carter-Vickers. Tyler Adams has exhausted the possibilities of prose superlatives; write him a ballad, hang a painting of him in the National Portrait Gallery, put him on the $50 bill—none of it would be excessive at this point.
In the room where I watched the game, there was a guttural, window-shaking exhalation upon the final whistle. (I was the only person in the room.) It was the equal—but crucially not opposite!—reaction to the jumping up and down and screaming of the goal against Algeria in 2010. Landon Donovan stands alone.
With the win, the U.S. advances to face Group A winners the Netherlands in the Round of 16 on Saturday. That game, one imagines, will look more like the England one than the games against Wales and Iran: more of an open battle in midfield, more seizing the opportunity and trying to capitalize quickly. It will be a game, in other words, well-suited to the American Chaos Muppets. Hopefully they can blow this one wide open and save us all the stress.