They did it the hard way — have Uncle Sam’s nephews ever done it any other way? But they did it on a day when any other result but victory would have meant an early trip to the airport. And they’re still very much alive in Qatar.
“I always say it’s us against the world,” said forward Tim Weah after the US men’s soccer team held off Iran, 1-0, in Doha on Tuesday to advance to the World Cup Round of 16. “No one believed the US could play good football.”
Not until Spanish referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz blew his whistle after nine minutes of stoppage time did the Americans have the chance to exhale and exult, a Saturday date with the Dutch booked.
They were too busy trying to clear balls out of the box and avoid a bump or a trip that would have given the Iranians the penalty kick that could have sent them through and the Yanks home.
“It’s the mark of determination and extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and get the win and not buckle,” said coach Gregg Berhalter after his young charges made Christian Pulisic’s 38th-minute opener hold up for an hour under duress.
This marks the fourth time in their last five appearances that the Americans have made it out of group play and the fourth time they’ve had to sweat and supplicate.
In 2002 when they were thumped by Poland they needed the South Koreans to beat Portugal. In 2010 after a pair of draws the US required a 91st-minute rebound from Landon Donovan to squelch Algeria. In 2014 they did it on goal differential, helped greatly by Germany’s four-goal pounding of Portugal.
This time nobody else could help the Americans. They had to do it on their own against an Iranian side that only needed a tie to advance for the first time.
The benefit of “win or die” is that it provides absolute clarity. All the US had to do was take the lead and keep it. As anyone who has followed the star-spangled soap opera knows, that’s not as easy for the Americans as it is for the Italians, whom the French correctly call the kings of 1-0.
The US led Wales by a goal with 10 minutes to go, fouled Gareth Bale in the box, and watched him drill home the equalizer that still reverberated more than a week later.
When the Iranians beat Wales after being shredded by England it gave them a priceless 3 points going into the group finale. The US, after its scoreless outing with the English, only had 2.
Three points used to be good enough back when victories were worth only 2 points. That’s how Italy did it when the Azzurri won the 1982 World Cup, extracting three group deadlocks from only two goals.
The Yanks did the Italians one better, producing a victory and two ties with only two goals. That said, those goals were marvels of creativity and execution.
Pulisic set up Weah for a deft finish in the 36th minute against the Welsh. And Pulisic’s kamikaze charge to the goal converted a perfect bouncing header from Sergiño Dest.
It also finished Pulisic for the night with an abdominal injury after he collided with keeper Alireza Beiranvand. Not only did his mates have to play the second half without their top performer, they also had to make a crucial tactical decision.
Did the US keep pushing for the second goal that likely would have ended things? Or try to lock down the proceedings instead of risking being burned on the counter and giving up the lead?
By their nature and their official byword (”Only Forward”) the Americans don’t bunker down. They attack. But after they lost Pulisic and then striker Josh Sargent in the 78th minute going forward would have been imprudent.
The Iranians had plenty of time to wait for a US miscue and as the second half wore on and they needed a goal to avoid elimination, they went after it with increasing assertiveness.
US keeper Matt Turner, who has performed superbly returning from a groin strain, made his first save in the 82nd minute. From that point on he was a duck in a shooting gallery.
In the third minute of stoppage time he watched Morteza Pouraliganji’s diving header whiz just wide. Then in the final minute when Turner was down, the goal open, and white jerseys crowding the area, defender Walker Zimmerman cleared the ball from behind to save the match while the Iranians were clamoring for a penalty against Cameron Carter-Vickers, who had his hand on Mehdi Taremi’s shoulder.
“The dream is over with this result,” said coach Carlos Queiroz.
For the Americans, who had to wait eight years for this moment after failing to qualify in 2018, it was a deeply gratifying outcome. They’ve survived more challenging groups, most recently in 2014 when the US was thrown in with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana.
But they’ve never come through with two shutouts. This bunch did without conceding a goal from open play. Who knew that the Yanks could morph into Italians in the desert?
“The guys grinded, gave every single ounce,” said Berhalter. “And we are undefeated going into the next round.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.