As the header from teammate Sergiño Dest came sailing across the goal mouth, Christian Pulisic was determined to meet the ball with any body part available. The young American superstar crashed through a human wall, and with his right thigh — or maybe knee, as it was hard to tell in the jumble of limbs — in the right place at the right time, turned and flicked the ball past Iranian keeper Alireza Beiranvand.
It was a beautiful effort, one fueled by grit and determination, filled with physicality and forged by sheer will, even if it ultimately cost Pulisic the chance to finish the game. He was injured in the collision with Beiranvand, leaving the pitch temporarily after the goal in the 38th minute, returning to finish out the first half only to be subbed off for the second while he made a trip to a Qatar hospital.
It was the kind of effort that said everything about how the 24-year-old wunderkind long ago dubbed “Captain America” understood what was at stake in Qatar, his willingness to sacrifice his body in the win-or-go-home contest so perfectly emblematic of what the US was out to accomplish.
“We’re very thankful that he threw his body in there,” teammate Weston McKennie said.
“We love him, we thank him,” echoed Tim Weah.
This was a World Cup that was never going to go quietly, not with a host country that should never have been chosen in the first place, with a litany of bribery scandals and human rights abuses that long ago indicted FIFA’s bottomless greed above all else. Through it all, Pulisic and Co. were determined to keep their focus on the games, and particularly on this game, on securing a win and advancing to the knockout stage, four years after failing to qualify for the tournament at all.
Pulisic’s strike made it happen, and the 1-0 victory sets up a matchup Saturday morning with the Netherlands. With the youngest World Cup team in US history and the youngest in Qatar, the real verdict on this group is likely to be delivered four years from now, back on North American soil when the US (Gillette Stadium included), Canada, and Mexico will serve as joint hosts.
But after months of questions about coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad and tactical decisions (I still want to know why Gio Reyna has barely played), after a stressful second half when the US hunkered down defensively and forced us to hold our collective breath across nine interminable minutes of stoppage time, the victory did tell us something.
“We have 25 other guys outside of Christian that would do the same thing, I believe,” Weah said. “We know what our goal is, what we want to do and accomplish. It was unfortunate that he had to come out, but when you see Christian, and the stature he has, and he’s willing to put his body on the line, that should tell you how close this team is.
“I always say it’s us against the world. No one believes the US can play good football, we’re just here trying to show the world we can.”
The past few days didn’t make it any easier, with players forced to face political questions not of their own making, peppered about the decision by the US federation to remove a part of the Iranian flag in a tweet that was intended to show support for ongoing Iranian protests demanding equal rights for women. The tweets were ultimately taken down, but not before players and Berhalter were left answering for them in World Cup press conferences, asked about everything from the positioning of US naval warships in the Middle East to systemic racism in the United States.
As impressive as US captain Tyler Adams was on the field Tuesday against Iran — and he was only the best player (with a nod to goalkeeper Matt Turner) in red, white, and blue — he was even more so in those controversial days heading in, using his voice in ways that belie his 23 years. The son of mixed race parents who was raised in a white family, Adams deftly handled a pointed question about racial relations in America.
“There’s discrimination everywhere you go,” Adams said. “One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in different cultures, and kind of assimilate into different cultures is that, in the US, we’re continuing to make progress every single day.
“Growing up for me, I grew up in a white family with obviously an African-American heritage and background as well, so I had a little bit of different cultures and I was very easily able to assimilate in different cultures. So not everyone has that ease and the ability to do that and obviously it takes longer to understand, and through education I think it’s super important.
“I think as long as you see progress, that’s the most important thing.”
Too bad it feels like this entire tournament has taken us backward, rewarding a country where the heat forced the games to be moved from summer to winter, legitimizing a regime that finally admitted to the deaths of between 400 to 500 migrant workers who helped build the infrastructure, ignoring Qatar’sconstantly changing rules, ranging from protecting the safety and well-being of visiting LGBTQ fans to the sale of beer inside the stadiums.
When you invite the world inside your borders and then act surprised when they don’t like what they see, you end up with an embarrassment like FIFA president Gianni Infantino, who delivered a tone-deaf tirade at the opening that managed to cast himself as a victim, telling reporters he knew what it felt like to be discriminated against because he’d been bullied for being a red-headed, freckled child.
“Today I feel Qatari. Today I feel Arab. Today I feel African. Today I feel gay. Today I feel disabled. Today I feel a migrant worker,” he said.
Today, he still sounds ridiculous.
Thankfully, the games have been good enough to drown him out. And today, with a daring gamble by Pulisic and a dramatic hold by his teammates, American soccer drowned him out, too.