KJ: Is this Messi's last World Cup game? PLUS: USMNT reaction
Tuesday November 29th, 2022
Iran 0-1 USA — Al Thumama Stadium
The World Cup may not be the stage for the greatest quality of football. The best coaches, after all, are at home with their clubs. Many of their players, though, are here, including most of the modern-day greats, who – with the possible exception of Cristiano Ronaldo – are placed in teams who are weaker than their clubs. This can lead to unfair legacies created based on what they cannot always do with inferior players.
Legacy. To some it can mean so much, despite having so little control over it. After all, much of this is down to how people remember you.
This is the power of the World Cup. A bigger stage than anything club football can create. Reference points of real value.
Tonight at Al Thumama Stadium this was one of these games for all at the United States Soccer Federation.
This was a game against Iran that had many stories around it coming in that were far more important than football. Yet, when it kicked off, this was the game that would define this era of United States Soccer.
The United States entered it with two good performances but with only two points. This was a game they had to win. This was their biggest game since the 2014 last 16 match against Belgium at the World Cup.
Remarkably, since then they have played just 20 competitive matches away from home and their results show it. They had no wins in five competitive away World Cup qualifiers for 2018 that cost them a spot in Russia. A loss to Canada in the Nations League in 2019 followed as did only one win in seven World Cup qualifiers away from home this time, and that came in Honduras where they trailed for long periods. A stalemate at El Salvador in the Nations League this year and two more here in Qatar meant since the extra time loss to Belgium in Salvador they have won just three of 20 competitive games away from the US in eight-and-a-half years – one against a woeful Honduras, one against Cuba in the Cayman Islands and a 6-0 demolition of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. Hardly inspiring. Hosting Gold Cups and not getting any further experience in hostile environments also does not help.
Tonight feels hostile and feels like an away game. It is a rare occasion for the US, far too short of these experiences in the past, to get this at a World Cup. Iran fans are amongst the loudest here in Qatar. The US start well and are not phased. The excellent Yunus Musah fires over the bar on a left volley and Christian Pulisic is denied soon after with a header. Left-back Antonee Robinson is allowed a ton of space from Iran’s shape and is effective, a cross to Timothy Weah leads to another chance.
Away from the moments the game is being run by midfielder Weston McKennie. The Juventus man, with red, white and blue in his hair, shows fantastic vision to set Weah up for another chance.
McKennie is an imposing figure, the kind of player that can glide and grunt his way through a game. Tonight he is playing at a different level to everyone else. Iran cannot get near him in a first half he completely runs and it is no surprise when he is the architect of a delightful ball to Sergino Dest whose cross is headed home by Pulisic.
Pulisic gets injured scoring the goal and the US are going to have to do this without the poster-boy of this side as he is removed at halftime.
Before that, though, the magnificent McKennie puts another delightful pass to Weah, who scores. The Lille man, though, is narrowly offside.
The second half starts with Pulisic being replaced by Brenden Aaronson. ‘Mr. Brightside’ from The Killers blares out on the public address system and the man in the middle is once again McKennie, jumping up and down ready to start the second half. Tonight he has been both the killer and ‘Mr.Brightside’ for US Soccer. The only question remains how long he can go as he continues to recover from a quad injury he sustained late last month.
The answer is 65 minutes. Wales gained a real advantage when he was removed when the US led 1-0 in the World Cup opener and Iran start to do the same here. Too many substitutions, as so often is the case here at the World Cup, disrupt the flow of the game for long periods, but as the game enters the final moments it is Iran who are pressing. This is their time, with three of their goals scored in injury time at this World Cup.
Nine minutes flash up and no one is even surprised anymore at the high number of stoppage time. A roar comes from the Iranian fans, Morteza Pouraliganji’s header at the near post beats Matt Turner but goes the wrong side of the post. The US hold their collective breaths.
Tyler Adams and Musah, now without McKennie but with Kellyn Acosta added to their midfield, keep running. This is a disciplined midfield that have controlled this game, dictating much of the tempo, being brave in possession and working incredibly hard out of it. In the end it turns out to be the key and the US secure their most significant victory in eight years.
They move on to play the Netherlands, a team they should not fear and can beat. This is a team with grit. A team full of spirit and toughness. Suddenly free from the pressure of getting out of the group, this is a side that can flourish now.
Remember in the 92-year history of this competition, Concacaf have won just four knockout games at the World Cup. Cuba did it against Romania in 1938, but needed a replay. Mexico beat Bulgaria in 1986, but as hosts. The US did it in 2002, but defeated a fellow Concacaf side, Mexico. Costa Rica defeated the worst last 16 team in the competition, Greece, in 2014. Suddenly, against a dour Netherlands side with very little creativity, the US have a shot at knocking out a genuine football superpower and achieving the biggest victory a Concacaf nation will have ever achieved at a men’s World Cup.