DOHA, Qatar -- With a loss or draw enough to send them home, the US men's national team secured a vital 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday to finish second in Group B and advance to the knockout rounds of the 2022 World Cup.
Christian Pulisic scored the game's only goal in the 38th minute, finishing from close range. Pulisic suffered what looked to be a lower abdominal injury on the play, and had to be substituted at halftime, and the US rarely looked as fluid in attack again.
The US was made to suffer in the game's latter stages, but ultimately did enough to secure a win that sees the Americans reach the knockout stage for the fourth time in the past five World Cups in which the USA has qualified.
1. Pulisic the hero, but pays a price as Americans advance to knockouts
Pulisic hasn't always looked comfortable being the face of this US team, and despite setting up Tim Weah's goal in the opener against Wales, his play had blown hot and cold in this World Cup. His execution during transition opportunities hasn't been good enough, and his set pieces often failed to clear the first man.
The Tuesday match looked to be more of the same in the early going, as the US struggled to break down Iran's defensive wall. But no one could question Pulisic's commitment or bravery in putting the US on top in the 38th minute. Weston McKennie pinged a ball to Sergiño Dest on the right wing, and Dest threaded it across goal to the onrushing Pulisic to convert from close range.
Pulisic paid a price for the tally, colliding with Iran keeper Alireza Beiranvand, and suffering an injury that left him wincing in pain. He gamely carried on for the rest of the half but eventually had to be substituted, with Brenden Aaronson coming on.
The US will be praying Pulisic recovers, as the Americans lost something with him no longer on the field -- though part of that was due to Iran taking a more aggressive posture in attack.
The substitutions made by US manager Gregg Berhalter seemed designed to see the match out rather than control the tempo. The insertion of Walker Zimmerman, who was surprisingly moved to the bench after starting the USA's first two games, saw the Americans go with five in the back.
The US certainly didn't close out the game in textbook fashion, as there were plenty of anxious moments at the end. Zimmerman's late clearance in stoppage time defused a scary situation when a ball got behind goalkeeper Matt Turner. But the US got the job done.
The match was seen as something of a referendum for this US squad -- and Berhalter. A group stage exit would have been seen as a failure given the talent in this US side, and questions still remain about the effectiveness of the US attack, which scored just two goals during the group stage.
But thanks to continued stellar play by the US defense, this is a moment to celebrate, and the Americans can now approach the knockout rounds with an attitude that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
2. The USA defense, and especially Dest, excels
The insertion of Carter-Vickers was a gamble given that not only was it his first game in the tournament, but it was also the first time he and Ream had ever played together. Yet the duo looked like they had been playing together for years, with one providing cover for the other on the rare occasion that one of their teammates got beaten.
Ream was once again exceptional while Carter-Vickers was steady. When the US look back on this group stage campaign, they will remember how the defense was breached only once with goals conceded from the run of play.
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But perhaps the most effective defender on the night was Dest for what he did on the attacking end.
After a tepid opening by the US when they seemed to have few ideas on how to break through the Iran defense, it was Dest's ability to get forward that gave the team a spark with his hard, low cross in the 17th minute causing some chaos in the Iran box. A mazy run in the 30th minute was blocked but seemed to give the US more confidence in attack.
All told, it was a difference-making performance from Dest.
3. Iran can't repeat heroics of 1998
Matchups between the USA and Iran are always politically charged. One of those was in the 1998 World Cup, when Iran recorded a famous victory against the US that eliminated the Americans from that tournament.
The political angle was ratcheted up ahead of this match after social media posts by the US Soccer Federation displayed the Iran flag with the emblem of the Islamic Republic removed. While the posts were intended to support protesters in Iran pushing for more equal treatment of women following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, a furor erupted. The offending posts were eventually removed and replaced with the actual flag displayed, but the pregame temperature had already reached the boiling point.
The Iranian players were facing massive pressure as well given their show of support for the protesters earlier in the tournament by not singing the national anthem. The announced crowd of 42,127 was firmly behind Team Melli as well, raising expectations.
Yet Iran's manager, Carlos Queiroz, will be questioned about the way his team started the match, delivering an oddly passive display in the first half.
Needing only a draw to advance, Team Melli's plan of sitting back and striking on the counter made sense but it seemed to rob Iran of the aggression it showed in the 2-0 win over Wales. Sardar Azmoun was often stranded up top, and Iran's transition game struggled to string together the kind of passes that would threaten the US defense.
It wasn't until the 52nd minute that Iran so much as registered a shot, with substitute Saman Ghoddos' close-range header going over the bar. Ghoddos threatened again in the 65th minute but his curling effort just missed the target.
Desperate to find an equalizer that would send them through, Iran pushed forward more, coming close on a stoppage-time header from Morteza Pouraliganji that went just wide. That was followed by Zimmerman's vital clearance. Ultimately, Team Melli couldn't find a way past the US and now find themselves eliminated from the tournament. Whether the players will face repercussions at home will be a story worth following.
USA: Matt Turner 6, Antonee Robinson 5, Tim Ream 7, Cameron Carter-Vickers 6, Sergino Dest 7, Yunus Musah 6, Tyler Adams 6, Weston McKennie 7, Christian Pulisic 6, Josh Sargent 6, Tim Weah 5.
Subs: Brenden Aaronson 5, Kellyn Acosta 5, Haji Wright 3, Walker Zimmerman 6, Shaq Moore 5
Iran: Alireza Beiranvand 6; Ramin Rezaeian 4, Morteza Pouraliganji 6, Majid Hosseini 6, Milad Mohammadi 4; Ali Gholizadeh 6, Ahmad Noorollahi 5, Saeid Ezatolahi 5, Ehsan Hajsafi 6; Sardar Azmoun 4, Mehdi Taremi 5.
Subs: Ali Karimi 5, Saman Ghoddos 6, Mehdi Torabi 5, Abolfazl Jalali 5, Karim Ansarifard 5
Best and worst performers
BEST: Sergino Dest, USA
It was Dest's attacking play on the right flank that provided the best attacking moments for the US, and his assist set up Pulisic for the vital goal.
WORST: Sardar Azmoun, Iran
Azmoun, so dynamic in the win over Wales, was way off his game. He provided nothing in the way of an attacking threat and was subbed at halftime.
Highlights and notable moments
All the danger throughout the first half was in Iran's end as the Americans went toward goal repeatedly. (The half ended with Iran generating 0.00 xG, or expected goals, an advanced stat measuring the likelihood of a team scoring.)
The celebrations quickly turned to concern, however, as Pulisic stayed down on the play, wincing in pain and clutching his lower abdomen area.
After medical evaluation on the sideline while the game continued, Pulisic returned to the field but he was eventually subbed off at halftime for Brenden Aaronson.
Pulisic is helped off the sideline after scoring for the USMNT pic.twitter.com/6C2z6sKNAZ— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 29, 2022
After the match: What the players and managers said
US men's national team coach Gregg Berhalter: "In the first half, we showed what we could do soccer-wise with a really a good first half. The second half, we showed what we could do determination-wise. The guys grinded and have every single ounce of energy, and we're undefeated going into the next round."
Berhalter on Pulisic: "No update on his status, but I've been saying all along it's a wonderful thing when one of your best players is one of your hardest-working, and he's certainly that. I can't say enough positive things about Christian."
USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie: "We wanted to control our own destiny, we knew we could handle it. And I mean, you guys can see -- I don't want to say a bad word, but we're a really close group of guys. We're brothers. We're [laughs]... We love this type of stuff, we love the pressure, we love the excitement. Because we're a young team, we have our own swagger, we have our own style, we have our own way that we play, the way that we connect with each other and you see we did it today."
McKennie on Pulisic's goal: "Obviously we're very thankful that he threw his body there, but the thing is we have 20, 25 guys outside of Christian that would do the same thing, I believe. We know what our goal is, we know what we want to do, what we want to accomplish, and everybody's ready to give everything. It's unfortunate he had to come out from it, but if you see the stature Christian has and he's throwing his body on the line, that should tell you enough of what this team means and how close this team is."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information)
Since making his debut for the US vs. Guatemala on March 29, 2016, Christian Pulisic has contributed to 33 goals (22 goals and 11 assists) -- the most of any other player in that span.
The USA completed 11 passes in the sequence that led to Pulisic's goal, the team's longest series of passes leading to a goal in a World Cup game played since ESPN's data set starts in 1966.
The USA's starting lineup had an average age of 24 years and 321 days, making it the youngest of any to take the field yet at the 2022 World Cup. It's the fourth-youngest starting lineup for the USMNT at a World Cup.
This game was defender Cameron Carter-Vickers' 12th cap, and the first time he and Tim Ream have ever started a match together or played in one at the same time with each other.
The USA starting lineup featured no players from MLS for only the second time since the league was formed in 1996. (The other time was the lineup to face Jamaica at the 2011 Gold Cup.)
In the first half, the USA gave up zero shots in a World Cup half for the first time since 1966.
The USA got consecutive shutouts at the FIFA World Cup for the first time since their first two matches in the competition in 1930.
USA: With the win, the US finish second in Group B behind England and advance to the round of 16, where the Americans will face the Netherlands on Saturday.
Iran: With the loss, Iran are out of the World Cup.