Analysis: USMNT defeats Iran 1-0 in a grueling battle to advance to knockouts
November 29, 2022
THE UNITED STATES national team is through to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup after a hard fought 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday night in Qatar. While the U.S. team did not need the last-minute heroics of 2010 or the fortunate results in other games to break their way like they did in 2002 and 2014 to qualify for the knockouts, this game ended with a grueling final 20 minutes to close it out.
Gregg Berhalter started with a similar starting lineup to England with the only two changes coming with Cameron Carter-Vickers replacing Walker Zimmerman in central defense to partner with Tim Ream and Josh Sargent replacing Haji Wright at center forward.
The U.S. team was strong to start the game and had the better of chances. Tim Weah had the first two very good opportunities of the game with the first coming in the 28th minute when a deflected shot from Sargent popped up to him. Instead of taking a volley, he headed it weakly to Iranian keeper Alireza Beiranvand. Then in the 35th minute, Weah hit an open 12 yard shot over the goal.
Then in the 39th minute, the U.S. team moved in front when a long sequence touched eight players and it ended with Sergino Dest heading the ball to Christian Pulisic for a close-range goal.
The goal came at a huge price to the U.S. team as Pulisic collided with Beiranvand and was down with an abdominal injury. He tried to play through it and made it to the half but was subbed out to start the second half for Brenden Aaronson.
In the second half, the U.S. saw Iran grow into the game albeit not to the degree Wales did in the group stage opener.
The last 20 minutes of regulation and the 10 minutes of injury time went by slowly and Iran sent a few dangerous balls into the box that came to nothing. They had two weak penalty appeals (one on a handball to Shaq Moore and a second for a foul on Carter-Vickers) but Spanish referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz quickly called for play to continue.
Here are some thoughts on the game.
Advancement caps a huge year
Advancing to the knockout stages was the minimum goal for success for the U.S. team in Qatar. They could soon turn this into a monumental success if they advance past the Dutch, but they won’t leave Qatar without pointing to moderate success.
But there is no way that the greater American soccer community can’t point to 2002 as being a very successful year on the men’s side. The resume is impressive
- The Seattle Sounders became the first MLS team to win the CONCACAF Champions League.
- The U.S. team qualified for the 2022 World Cup
- The U.S. U-20 team qualified for the U-20 World Cup
- The U.S. U-20 team then ended the 16-year Olympic drought to qualify for Paris 2024
- Americans abroad continued to have a big presence in Europe’s “Big 5” leagues
- MLS playoffs were a success and MLS Cup was arguably the best edition ever
- The U.S. team defeats Iran to advance to the knockout stages of the 2022 World Cup.
The World Cup success is not necessarily groundbreaking. The U.S. team has now advanced out of the group stages in four of the last five World Cup in which it has participated. That’s no small accomplishment.
But after the disappointments of the World Cup qualifying failure in 2017 and then trying to rebuild the team with an extremely young group of players, this success is, to many fans, as sweet as the wins over Portugal and Mexico in 2002 or the Landon Donovan heroics against Algeria in 2010.
Regardless of how the knockouts play out, this tournament will set the stage well for the upcoming cycle where the U.S. team will co-host the World Cup in 2026.
Adams was immense
It sounds like a broken record, but Tyler Adams put in yet another incredible performance. It’s no overstatement that he’s been perhaps the best defensive midfielder at the tournament, so far. Against Iran, he had perhaps his best outing. His numbers were eye-opening.
Tyler Adams: raw numbers in 1-0 win vs. Iran— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) November 29, 2022
7/8 long balls
6/9 ground duels won
11 passes into the final third
1 foul also a YC.
But beyond his stats, it was the eyeball test. Just by watching him, he kept the game under control for the U.S. team on both sides of the ball. He broke up plays. He was key in the transition between the defense and the attack. He covered so much ground to get back into the defense and cover the entire field. He rarely touched the ball into the attacking third, but he was everywhere.
Adams’ touchmap is below (attacking left)
Adams has been one of the tournament’s breakout players and for long-time American fans it has been fun to watch as he has gone through so many of the country’s modern developmental channels: U.S. U-17 World Cup, MLS homegrown, USL Championship (winning the title with the Red Bulls II), MLS (winning the Supporters Shield), the U.S. U-20 World Cup team, the Bundesliga, Champions League semifinals, the Premier League, and the U.S. World Cup team where he’s been the captain.
When you list it all, it’s remarkable. When you realize he still hasn’t turned 24 yet, it’s incredible.
Pulisic’s big moment
There has been so much written about Christian Pulisic and when it comes down to his club career, it isn’t always pretty. While he is at a huge club in Chelsea, we’ve seen him move in and out of the lineup under various managers. The British press has been on him about missing chances. There is speculation about whether he will get sold or replaced in the lineup.
But lost in all of this is that he is finding a way to deliver regularly when the U.S. team needs him. He is regularly there to deliver big goals or hit big assists – against Mexico in Cincinnati or the Nations League final in Denver. His assist to Weah against Wales was monumental. But he delivers the most for the U.S. team when needed and this was his big moment in the 39th minute when he risked injury on a dangerous play to ensure the U.S. team found a goal against Iran.
It was his “Landon Donovan” moment and it resembled how Donovan was always there for the U.S. team when needed, scoring in two World Cup group stages and knockouts along with the Confederations Cup and Gold Cup wins.
But this was a moment where Pulisic stepped into being an all-time U.S. player. Yes, his club career has been groundbreaking for an American. But in terms of delivering for the U.S. team, he needed goals at the highest of stages and he did that here.
Dest and Robinson
The U.S. team’s fullbacks were a big source of the attack. The U.S. clearly felt most comfortable going out wide. While the wingers in Weah and Pulisic often would cut into the middle, it was Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest who pushed forward and stayed out wide. For the first 60-70 minutes, they helped stretch Iran’s defense and open the game up.
For Dest, what has been important regarding him has been his defense. His offense has always been first-rate, but his defense has been in question. Against Iran, was beaten a few times but otherwise had a great defensive performance.
Dest’s touchmap is below (attacking left)
For Robinson, his engine and work-rate were among the best in the tournament. The left-back position has historically been an Achilles Heel for the U.S. team, but Robinson is using this tournament to be the best natural left back the program has had. His crossing still needs to be better, but his pure athleticism requires so much attention that it opens doors.
Robinson’s touchmap is below (attacking left)
Against Iran, Robinson’s crossing was scattered but he had nine recoveries, won 4/6 of his total duels, and had nine passes into the final third. He also had 70 touches in 90 minutes. Meanwhile, Dest had 4/5 successful dribbles, had 76 touches in 82 minutes, was 37/42 passing with seven passes into the final third. Then, of course, Dest had the assist on Pulisic’s goal via a header.
Both players had Iran at their heels but according to the stats, Robinson was 1/8 in crossing and Dest was 0/4. If these two can find a way to complete more than 1/12 combined crossing, the U.S. team would be even more dynamic offensively.
Yes, the team needs to get better in set pieces to score more. But having better fullback crossing would also pay big dividends. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that both have been big net positives for the team.
Closing out the game
Closing out the win was tough for the U.S. team and if the team scores the opener against the Netherlands, it will need to be better controlling the tempo or else a good Dutch team will find an equalizer.
Losing a player like Pulisic puts Berhalter to the test but Berhalter made substantial changes to mixed results.
The injury replacement for Josh Sargent in the 77th minute was Haji Wright, and Wright struggled immensely to connect with players, to shoot properly, or even to take the ball to the corner to seal out the win at the end of stoppage time.
The decision to replace Dest might have been necessary as Dest is not in the best fitness given the time he missed in October and early November at AC Milan with his injury. He has rarely gone 90 minutes in a game this season. Shaq Moore is seen as a defensive 1v1 replacement but he was out of synch with his team getting forward.
The change in formation starting in the 82nd minute (for a total of 18 minutes, including stoppage time) was the toughest decision. When he brought Walker Zimmerman into the game, it was not a like-for-like sub and he went to five in the back. Iran had resulted to sending hopeful balls into the box to find a shot.
Zimmerman did what Berhalter wanted in that he was clearing balls out of danger by winning headers. But a five-man backline left the U.S. team out-manned in the midfield. Kellyn Acosta came into the game in the 65th minute and he won some important duals and defensively forced Iran outside, but the U.S. team ceded a lot of possession and was too weak on its counterattack in missing open runners and not executing passes that create good chances.
The U.S. ended up making this much harder than it had to be.
Looking ahead to the Netherlands
Looking ahead to Saturday’s game against the Netherlands in the Round of 16, Berhalter will likely want to continue to keep most of his lineup in-tact. Their chemistry is an asset at this point.
But will he be able to?
The good news is that the U.S. team has no suspensions, but it has two injuries with Sargent and Pulisic.
Following the game, it was announced that Pulisic went to the hospital for observation for a pelvic contusion. Pulisic has said that he will be ready for Saturday, but a little bit of perspective is necessary in that players are typically unreliable when talking about their own health for huge games. Players often say they are 100% or will be 100% for big games but this will come down to how Berhalter, his staff, and the U.S. medical team views him.
The injury to Sargent is not yet clear and he left the game holding his ankle/leg. Unlike Pulisic, he was unable to continue for even a brief period.
If Pulisic can play, he starts in this game. If he can’t, Berhalter will have to make decisions. Does he go with Aaronson again or does he try someone else like Gio Reyna or Jordan Morris? For Aaronson, if he starts out wide for Pulisic, it removes the most important backup midfielder from the bench. Aaronson has begun to thrive in the midfield (his natural position) after playing as a winger for Berhalter.
It also raises the question over Reyna’s health who did not play against Iran and has only made one brief appearance (against England) in this tournament. He’s one of the most talented players on the team, but if he is not playing right now the likely assumption is that there are questions over his fitness and health. He has suffered numerous reinjuries since his original September 2021 injury and last just a half in his recent game before the break with Borussia Dortmund. If he is not coming off the bench in must win game against Iran, it seems like a stretch he will start four days later against the Netherlands.
Another area where Berhalter will have to decide is in central defense. Ream has been excellent in Qatar but Berhalter has played him with Zimmerman and then Carter-Vickers. One of the reasons why Berhalter started Carter-Vickers against Iran is that he expected Iran to sit back similar to how Scottish opponents sit back against Celtic. But against the Netherlands, the U.S. will be back on its heels more. Does that then make Zimmerman the preferred option as he was against England?
Finally, what does Berhalter do about center forward? Sargent worked very hard against Iran, connected with his wingers, and was an asset in defense. He could be a good option against the Netherlands if he is healthy.
But if Sargent isn’t healthy (which is a real concern), then it will come down to either Haji Wright or Jesus Ferreira. Wright hasn’t played well in Qatar either off the bench against Wales and Iran or when he started against England. Because of that, Ferreira could have a realistic chance to start against Holland. He presses well, connects well with his teammates, and moves well. He had a great season with FC Dallas but struggled in the final weeks. Still, Berhalter might be looking for a different look.
Against the Netherlands, Berhalter is facing some serious decisions and ways to get the most out of his squad amid serious concerns over the health and form of several key players. If the U.S. team plays up to its ability, an upset is realistic.