If there are times when “just enough” can be, well, sufficiently good enough, then this looks like one of them. Just enough to get the job done. The mission for this United States national team was always “2nd round or bust!” So it’s mission accomplished, right?
Perhaps this isn’t the way they’d preferred to manage the task, hanging on for dear life in the 100th minute against an Iranian team that wasn’t much in terms of attacking threat, but it doesn’t matter now. Not considering the youth of this team – among the youngest at the World Cup, average starting age of 24 on Tuesday – and not considering the United States didn’t even qualify four years ago.
Now a tough Round-of-16 date with the Netherlands awaits. And while the Americans will be underdogs in an elimination match against the three-time World Cup runner-up, it’s all house money now. Because when we cut it to the bone, manager Gregg Berhalter had two hard targets as he ignored the claims of nepotism and took over the men’s national team early in 2019: Get the United States to the 2022 World Cup and – more to the point today – guide the team out of group play from there.
The 1-0 win over Iran on Christian Pulisic’s goal, brave and massive, did just that. So the United States men’s program can check the box on “progress” after wiggling through in its most meaningful contest since meeting Belgium in the 2014 World Cup elimination stage in Brazil.
What went right: Pulisic comes through
We really can’t say the United States “found it’s attack” or even that it found it’s best version of itself. That would be taking the case a little too far; this was Iran after all, hardly some perennial World Cup giant. But we can say this: After managing just two shots on target through 180 minutes, the United States found enough offense. Again, just enough.
Pulisic had been good through two previous matches in Qatar, although perhaps not special. Or maybe it’s more fair to say “not special often enough.” But in desperate need of a win (a draw Monday would have meant US elimination) Pulisic did what he has long seemed destined to do: make the moment with everything on the line.
Weston McKennie’s pinpoint 38th minute ball out of midfield, launched diagonally over Iran’s back line, started the well-constructed team goal, one that was about speed as much as it was alert pattern play. Sergiño Dest raced to the spot at the back post, aware that heading McKennie’s entry pass back across goal was the prudent choice. And there was Pulisic, accelerating between two Iranian defenders, bravely launching himself into a twisting volley from close range, injuring himself in the process, but perhaps happy for the sacrifice.
When we talk about the most meaningful goals in US Men’s National Team history, this one might be on the list.
While Dest on the right and Antonee Robinson on the left were finding space on the wings, steadily supplying crosses, Iran produced almost nothing in the first 45 minutes. Once again that was often down to a mobile, dominant US midfield. McKennie provided his usual, large presence. Yunus Musah had perhaps his best two-way evening, certainly his most active. But once again Tyler Adams was an absolute firebrand.
A day after demonstrating he’s an eloquent statesman as well as a worthy captain, his performance in the defensive midfield role was another masterclass. If Adams has done anything wrong in this World Cup, you’ll have to dig deep in the video to find it.
Berhalter makes the right choices
In a match that will go far in deciding this U.S. group’s legacy and Berhalter’s personal fate, the 49-year-old manager seemed to make the right calls. (He may or may not retain his US post after this World Cup, but he almost certainly would have been replaced with anything less than a second-round appearance).
Berhalter made a bold choice in replacing center back Walker Zimmerman with Cameron Carter-Vickers. Carter-Vickers and Tim Ream had never played together as a central combo, but here they were, a spanking new tandem in what amounted to an elimination match.
Josh Sargent was the pick at striker, and his holdup play was helpful.
What went wrong: still looking for that striker
It certainly would have been more comfortable if the United States could have found a second goal, but the lack of it draws attention back to that scab we all keep picking at: the inability to identify a solid, first-choice striker. Sargent’s second half injury may further limit the U.S. choices.
This team still needs more goals. Then again, we’ve been saying that about Berhalter’s bunch since summer. That “helpful” holdup play may have been enough to get the Americans into second round play, but they’ll likely need more against a Dutch team that includes world-class center back Virgil van Dijk.
Speaking of center backs, Carter-Vickers held up well enough, doing his part to ensure that goalkeeper Matt Turner had another relatively quiet evening. Carter-Vickers looked a little vulnerable defending in space, and elevated US supporter heart rates with a late challenge that had Iranian players and staff screaming for video review.
But no review. No equalizer that would have sent the United States home.
Again, just enough.
Drawing the lens back on group play, we can now see Wales was poor and Iran was just a little better, not special but just talented enough to grab a result against Wales.
The United States has advanced through a relatively forgiving group. In this tournament, for this manager, for this young roster, that represents progress. And for now, that’s enough.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Xinhua
Guide to World Cup 2022
200+ Channels With Sports & News
- Starting price: $33/mo. for fubo Latino Package
- Watch Premier League, Women’s World Cup, Euro 2024 & Gold Cup
The New Home of MLS
- Price: $14.99/mo. for MLS Season Pass
- Watch every MLS game including playoffs & Leagues Cup
Many Sports & ESPN Originals
- Price: $9.99/mo. (or get ESPN+, Hulu & Disney+ for $12.99/mo.)
- Features Bundesliga, LaLiga, Championship, & FA Cup
2,000+ soccer games per year
- Price: $5.99/mo
- Features Champions League, Serie A, Europa League & Brasileirāo