Win or go home: that is the simple equation facing the USMNT on Tuesday night when they take on Iran in the third and final Group B game.
Four days after a draw that felt like a loss against Wales, Gregg Berhalter‘s squad posted a draw that felt like a win against group favorites England, in a game which saw the Americans arguably have claim to be the better of the two sides.
While Friday’s result only netted one point, coupled with Iran’s win over Wales, it put the team in a familiar position, yet one which will define this generation of players over the next few World Cup cycles most of them will have together.
In short: the team’s destiny is entirely in their own hands.
Or to put it more succinctly: Win or go home.
With that task before them, the young American squad goes into Tuesday’s game as likely favorites, and with many factors moving in their favor, although under an unwanted shroud of controversy, and facing an Iranian squad that is motivated to fight for the win or draw that would almost certainly see them advance to the final 16.
Berhalter has the luxury of having avoided any injuries or suspensions up to this point in the tournament, and has the full squad of players at his disposal.
After endless speculation by fans and pundits about how he would tactically adjust his players for the powerful English following the lackluster second half against Wales, the coach surprised all by trotting out ten of the same 11 players, with the only adjustments being to replace Josh Sargent with Haji Wright up front, and shift Christian Pulisic into the midfield to set up a more traditional 4-4-2.
Whether by planning or luck, it worked like a charm to keep the Three Lions in check, and could point towards a similar deployment on Tuesday. While several key players are under threat of a second yellow and subsequent suspension for a potential knockout match over the weekend, the all-or-nothing nature of this game would make the option of giving a visibly cohesive unit their third straight run-out within eight days an attractive one.
Put simply, all 11 players on the field on Friday did their jobs well enough to maintain their starting spots, and it would be difficult to make a clear-cut case for any of them being moved to the bench.
Perhaps the lone point of fine-tuning from the all-knowing armchair tacticians would be the replacement of Wright, who simply didn’t provide any more consistent pressure on the opposing goal than Josh Sargent four days before, with a well-rested Brenden Aaronson or under-utilized Gio Reyna. However we’ve been down this road again and again with nothing to show for it, so the most reasonable expectation would be for these two to be saved for a second-half spark.
Then again, trying to predict Berhalter’s machinations and tactical choices – whether they turn out for the better or worse – has too often proved useless throughout the qualifying cycle and this tournament, so in short, lineup predictions are pointless, and nothing will be surprising.
Unsurprisingly, the crucial game between the teams from two countries that have been political enemies for decades has not been without an unnecessary and escalating amount of often petty controversy off the field – with entities from both countries stoking the fires.
All news involving the Iranian team has been set against the backdrop of the current wave of human-rights protests happening in the country, which has unfortunately led to fighting between groups pro- and anti-regime fans outside the stadium, and reported harassment of female Iranian fans.
US Soccer jumped into the fray by briefly including an older version of the Iranian flag indicating support for the protest movement, which inevitably led to calls from the government-controlled Iranian media for the US team’s ouster from the tournament all-together.
Surely, FIFA is planning to take the complaint every bit as seriously as the long-standing allegations of bribery and corruption in their own organization.
Unlike his Canadian counterpart John “effin'” Herdman, the USMNT coach Berhalter has made all efforts to diplomatically keep himself and his players out of any controversy, despite some ham-handed efforts by reporters representing the Iranian state media in the two recent pre-game press conferences.
As a side note, while Herdman is a fine tactical coach, and did a wonderful job to guide Canada through an impressive qualification campaign, quite honestly, he’s an effin’ moron. A good coach finds ways to take outside pressure off of his players, and reduce an important game to be only about what’s happening on the field. His off-the-cuff comments about the Canadians planning to go and “eff” Croatia – the 2018 finalists mind you – did nothing but motivate an already-favored Croatian team, and add that extra bit of off-the-field garbage to the psychological background of the game, turning what could have been a respectable 2-1 loss into an effin’ humiliating 4-1 embarrassment. I digress…
Sadly, the previous coach to guide the US team to a World Cup, the one and only Jürgen Klinsmann, stoked the fires in his own patented incomprehensible manner, seeming to take a jab at Iran coach Carlos Queiroz and the team’s overall sideline behaviour.
Whatever the case, when the opening whistle blows at 2pm Eastern time, 8pm Central European time in the Al Thumama Stadium on Tuesday, both teams will have everything to play for, and every reason to believe they can attain the result needed to reach the final 16.
Iran bounced back from an opening 6-2 loss at the hands of the English to take a professional and impressive 2-0 victory against Wales on Friday afternoon, although it must be said that they were aided by a late sending-off by the Welsh keeper.
Still, their ability to exploit their late advantage, with a 98th-minute goal from Roozbeh Cheshmi and a 101st-minute strike from Ramin Rezaeian doing both themselves and the US a huge favor.
The fact that neither of the critical goalscorers in that game was either of their arguable stars Mehdi Taremi (FC Porto, 2 goals against England) or Sardar Azmoun (Bayer Leverkusen) speaks to their largely underestimated danger on the attack.
The pair will certainly test the likely back-line of Sergiño Dest, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson, although a solid, tight performance like the quartet put up against England would be enough to stifle the pair.
Ultimately the most important battles will be between the stable of American attackers and the Iranian midfield and back-line, who frankly have no major stars, but still held off Gareth Bale and a generally solid Welsh attack.
The likes of Pulisic, Tim Weah, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Aaronson and more certainly have enough athleticism and guile to theoretically wear down what is sure to be a packed defensive effort by the Iranian unit over 90 minutes.
Whether they actually manage to do it, or end up flying home early enough to open the first window on their advent calendar on-time will be known in just under 24 hours.