AL RAYYAN, Qatar -- US defender Walker Zimmerman said he and his teammates have no problem with the pressure that comes with a must-win game.
The US men's national team will face Iran at the Al Thumama Stadium on Tuesday, with a spot in the knockout rounds on the line. Iran is one point ahead of the Americans in the standings thanks to Team Melli's 2-0 win over Wales, making the game a must-win for the Americans, while a draw will likely be enough for Iran to advance.
"Our goal is obviously to win the World Cup, and in order do that, we have to get to the knockout stages," Zimmerman said. "For us, our knockout game comes one game earlier. You look around at a lot of different teams and groups and they're all going into their third game, most of them with having to get a result. Whether that's a tie or win, there's going to be pressure, there's going to be an intensity. For us, that's a win. And we have no problem with that, starting our knockout a little bit earlier."
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For all the focus on the US attack going into this World Cup, they have been rock-solid defensively through two games so far, conceding just Gareth Bale's penalty in the opener against Wales. But Zimmerman's fellow center-back, Tim Ream, remains wary of Iran's attack.
"Obviously there are a couple of very good players up front [including Mehdi] Taremi with his finishing, so he's one to be aware of," he said. "But this game is going to be about us and about what we need to do and what we have to do to advance and to win. Being aware of their compact shape and their counter attacking is going to be key."
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On the flip side, the US have struggled to score goals, with Tim Weah's tally against Wales the only time they have broken through. The chances have been there, with several notable ones against England, but overall the team has lacked precision in the final third. Set pieces, long a strength for this American side, could play a factor as well.
"There have been a lot of moments in transition where we can be a little bit sharper," Zimmerman said. "We can pick out that final pass, and hopefully create more. But set pieces is a huge strength for this team. And so, having to go back and look at the plays, watch all of them, see what we can do differently, see what areas we can hit ... we want to make sure everyone is doing their job.
"It's going to come down to the little things on set pieces and so we definitely need to work on those, and make sure that that can be a real strength of ours, because I think we have the personnel to score goals off of set pieces."
USSF backs down following uproar over Iran flag
After posting images on social media with altered images of the Iran flag, which had removed the emblem of the Islamic Republic, the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) removed the posts and replaced them with the actual flag after considerable blowback on Sunday.
The Islamic Republic emblem, designed in 1980, is four curves with a sword between them. It represents the Islamic saying "There is no god but God" and honors the date on the Persian calendar when the Islamic Revolution took hold.
The USSF initially posted the images with the center image on the Iran flag removed, though an image on the team's website still included an unaltered image. A USSF spokesperson said the intention in removing the emblem was to show support for protesters in Iran pushing for more equal treatment of women following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who had been detained by the country's morality police. The ensuing protests have seen at least 450 people killed since they started as well as over 18,000 arrested, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, an advocacy group following the demonstrations.
Iran's government reacted by accusing America of removing the name of God from their national flag. According to the official Iran news agency, Iran threatened to file a protest with the FIFA ethics committee, while a report from The Associated Press also stated that Iran was threatening legal action.
A USSF spokesperson said that the decision to alter the Iran flag was made by the federation, in conjunction with experts on Iran. The spokesperson added that neither US manager Gregg Berhalter nor the players had any prior knowledge of the decision, which was confirmed by both Ream and Zimmerman during Sunday's availability.
Iran's players have attempted to walk a fine line between supporting the protesters while also not running afoul of the Iranian authorities. Iran's players didn't sing the national anthem ahead of their opening game against England, though they did sing the anthem before the second match against Wales. Fans in support of the Iran government also harassed protesters at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium on Friday in the lead-up to the Wales game.
The USSF spokesperson said that the decision to take down the posts was an internal decision and was not due to outside pressure. The spokesman added that the USSF still supports the protesters in Iran, and the maneuver will likely add more fuel to a match already fraught with political overtones. Zimmerman emphasized that the team is focused on Tuesday but remains in support of women's rights.
"I think it's such a focused group on the task at hand, but at the same time we empathize, and we are firm believers in women's rights and support them," said Zimmerman.