Because this was it, a game of all-or-nothing, when winning was everything and anything else was failure. Pulisic, the superstar figurehead for this young USA team, saw that equation, liked it and decided to go with the “winning” option.
He paid a price for it, too. All Gregg Berhalter’s Americans showed heroic spirit and fierce resolve at Al Thumama Stadium, but Pulisic put his body on the line in the most devil-may-care way to secure the only goal of the game.
On 38 minutes, nearing the end of a first half that had brought little but frustration in the face of Iran’s ill-advised dedication to total defense, Weston McKennie got the ball in midfield and spotted right back Sergiño Dest speeding forward on the flank. McKennie’s floated ball was nodded across the face of goal by Dest, and Pulisic won the foot race to steer it home from a few yards out.
Then … crunch. The 24-year-old American, already a Champions League winner with Chelsea and seemingly destined for the top since he first broke into the national team squad as a teen, collided heavily with Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and lay winded on the turf for several minutes.
He struggled on until halftime, but did not re-emerge after the break, replaced by Brenden Aaronson. He was taken to a hospital with an abdominal injury for scans. He had done enough, if you consider scoring the most immediately important goal by an American man in 12 years to be “enough.”
Onward they march then, the USA, to a round of 16 clash with the Netherlands on Saturday, a matchup in which they will be a sizable underdog. Don’t write them off, though, and don’t underestimate the emotional boost to be gained from this, a win in a game that became rife with political undertones over the past days.
Just before the break they could have put the contest further beyond Iran’s reach on a pair of breakaways, one where Josh Sargent and Timothy Weah failed to connect and another where Weah put the ball in the net, but was ruled offside.
Suddenly though, the task at hand had changed, for both teams. Iran could no longer sit back and hold on, and pressed men forward as they sought the equalizing goal needed to put their country through to the elimination rounds for the first time in history.
On 52 minutes, Saman Ghoddos had a header from six yards but steered it over the bar, under pressure from Dest at his shoulder.
Perhaps seeing the folly of Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz’s ultra-cautious tactics, the Americans weren’t sitting on the lead, despite Iran’s proven effectiveness on the break, with speedy forwards Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun ready to pounce.
It was a different Iran now, No longer were there 10 players behind the ball as a defensive wall. No more taking forever on throw-ins and free-kicks.
There were new priorities for the Americans too. Berhalter sprung a surprise as his team was announced, introducing defender Cameron Carter-Vickers for his first action of the tournament and relegating Walker Zimmerman to the bench. Not, presumably, due to any defensive deficiency as Zimmerman had been excellent alongside Tim Ream in the 0-0 against England, but because of the potential threat from set pieces.
Now, Carter-Vickers had to play his role in surviving the onslaught, muscling out Mehdi Taremi as the striker advanced on goal.
Iran, however, was creating chances. Ghoddos, lively in midfield, received the ball unmarked in the area, but curled his shot just over Matt Turner‘s bar.
Turner, barely required in the first half as possession fell near-exclusively to the Americans, became gradually busier. Earlier, emotion etched on his face as he belted out the anthem pre-game, he rubbed the flag on his chest.
Late on, his face contorted again, this time in defiance, after Morteza Pouraliganji headed wide from a free-kick whipped in across the face of goal.
This, the nerve-wracking final moments, was the part American fans hadn’t prepared themselves for. With so much talk about the need to score goals in the buildup, one part was lost, the need to prevent them.
Deandre Yedlin and Josh Sargent embrace Saeid Ezatolahi of Iran after the match. (Photo by Claudio Villa/Getty Images)
Now, that was paramount. Turner, ever calm, was commanding in the box, one of his finer moments being the unflinching way he collected a through pass, despite knowing he’d take a boot to the shin from Taremi.
No pain, no gain. Same for him. Same for Pulisic. The price of winning. And so much better than the pain of failure.
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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.
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