DOHA, Qatar — Now the knockout rounds start for real for the U.S. men.
Needing a victory over Iran to advance out of the group stage, the USMNT got a goal in the 38th minute and hung on from there, surviving several late challenges from Iran to get a 1-0 victory Tuesday night. As the second-place finisher in Group B, they will play the Netherlands, the Group A winner, on Saturday.
The Americans dominated the Iranians for much of the first half, their youth more than outweighing their inexperience. They were able to get to balls and close down spaces quickly, and Sergino Dest and Tim Weah repeatedly tested Iran’s defense, which could do little but bunker down and block the last U.S. pass.
But after failing to finish in their first two games, Christian Pulisic and the Americans weren’t going to be denied again.
In the 38th, Weston McKennie chipped a long ball to Dest, who headed it across the goal where a streaking Pulisic found it. He knocked it in from close range with his right foot, setting off pandemonium among U.S. fans and the USMNT bench.
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The jubilation briefly turned to concern, however, as Pulisic went down in a hard collision with Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. Pulisic appeared to have taken a knee to his midsection, and he was down for several minutes.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter waved off a sub as Pulisic gingerly jogged along the sideline. After grabbing a sip of water, he went back in the game.
The USMNT nearly doubled the lead in stoppage time, when McKennie served up another gorgeous ball that Weah banked off the far post. But Weah was offside by inches, and the USMNT had to settle for the 1-0 lead.
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Iran had scored three of its four goals after the 90th minute, and they gave Matt Turner and the Americans everything they had in the final minutes of this one. The most dangerous came in the final minute, when Iran called for a penalty on Cameron Carter-Vickers for holding in the box.
Turner had come off his line, but Walker Zimmerman slid to clear the ball and the USMNT escaped.
When the final whistle sounded, the Americans stood there, gassed. Several Iranians dropped to the ground while others stood with their hands on their hips.
Despite their youth — even with 35-year-old Tim Ream and 33-year-old Sean Johnson, the USMNT has an average age of 25 years and 216 days — and inexperience — DeAndre Yedlin was the only player on the 26-man roster to have played in a World Cup before – this group is determined to change how the world views American soccer. They have impressive individual credentials, with 17 of the 26 playing in Europe this season and five competing in the Champions League, but they need to make strides as a national team.
The Americans won high praise for their performance against England, in particular, and Iran coach Carlos Queiroz had called them the most consistent team in the group.
“(They’re) probably even the team that made the best two performances in the tournament in our group,” he said.
But none of that would have mattered had the Americans not reached the knockout rounds.
“Our goal is obviously to win the World Cup. In order to do that, we have to get to the knockout stages,” Walker Zimmerman said before the Iran game.
Because of draws in their first two games, against Wales and England, the USMNT’s only path out of the group was to beat Iran. And to beat Iran, they had to score goals, something they struggled with in their first two games in Qatar.
The Americans had created multiple chances against both Wales and England but couldn’t finish them. Rather than causing concern, McKennie said it was a sign the USMNT was on the right track.
“If you create 100 chances, at least one of them’s gonna go in eventually,” McKennie said after the England game. “So the most important thing was that we created the chances and that we can be a threat. And that’ll just build.”
McKennie’s words turned out to be prophetic. The USMNT didn’t convert all of its chances, but it got the one it needed.