3-0 would have worked too, kids.
The perception of the USMNT before this cycle, both inside and outside the country for the longest time, was that it was tough to beat. They could run a lot, they would never think they were out of it, and they could treat any situation like it was the Alamo. They were severely limited, and couldn’t really win games that they couldn’t turn into a battle of physicality instead of skill and technique. But they would work really hard, and that’s about it.
This USMNT is about more than that, but they did have to roll back into the files for that old profile a bit this afternoon to escape Group B with a 1-0 win over Iran. Over the next day or two you’ll hear all about “digging deep,” and “heart,” and “wanting it more” and all those phrases. And there was some of that, especially in the last 10 minutes when the U.S. simply had to batten down the hatches (partially due to their manager, but we’ll get to that). However, the reason the U.S. had enough in the tank, just enough, to close this one out is just how professional they were in the first half to 60 minutes. And no previous U.S. team could have done that.
In the first half, the U.S. could not have played it any better, except for maybe getting multiple goals, of course. While they applied pressure, suffocated Iran, and rarely let them break out even of their own half much less into any meaningful counter, the U.S. never looked like they had their hair on fire. They were controlled, they varied their plan of attack, and they never looked like they thought they weren’t going to find the goal or leave themselves open.
The U.S. was in their usual 4-3-3, but with Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic under specific instructions to tuck in behind the Iran midfield, which allowed for two things: Space for both Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson to get forward into the space vacated, and to be available for through balls breaking the Iranian defensive line. And also left them in prime pressing areas to get the ball back when it was lost. Both Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah would also pull wide to form triangles with the fullbacks and wide attackers, and to be there to thread those balls in behind. It should have left the U.S. vulnerable through the middle on the counter, but that’s less of a risk when you have Tyler Adams glitching his way all over the field to break things up and recycle possession again and again.
The U.S.’s most dangerous opportunities, before the goal, was when they opened up either Dest or Robinson to lace crosses through the six-yard box with multiple runners. Josh Sargent kept the Iranian defense guessing by sometimes dropping into midfield and sometimes running off the last shoulder. The goal was the result of that, as well as Pulisic and McKennie switching roles, as Sargent dropped off, the Iran central defenders followed him, and Pulisic’s late run into the box was into the space they vacated. McKennie played a gorgeous cross-field switch to Dest to set it up, and Pulisic was the one making the late run into the box that couldn’t be tracked. It’s how you draw it up. It’s the least the U.S. deserved.
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The hope was that the U.S. would learn from the Wales game. The fear is that they’d fall into a similar pattern. They didn’t really, at least not until the end. As big as hearing Pulisic had to leave the game feels, he still plays the one spot that the U.S. has tons of options at. While he scored the most famous goal of his career, Brendan Aaronson actually looked more vibrant and dangerous in the early part of the second half than Pulisic has for the most part. And he was able to pack his usual ridiculous amount of running into just 45 minutes. He popped up between the lines more, brought down or chased down more long balls, and got into the box more often. The U.S. can ride it out if Pulisic has to miss the Round of 16.
And still, the U.S.’s biggest bugaboo, the final ball, the final shot, nearly cost them. Before halftime was upon them Tim Weah had blown a great chance on the counter. There were one or two others that should have been buried with just a better pass or shot. They could have made this easier on themselves. Not their way though, is it? Not in the DNA.
Still, even as the U.S. began to tire and couldn’t quite get up the field in the same way, they restricted Iran to one shot from way outside the box, a header from Ghoddos that went over, and one big chance in the 52nd minute that wrapped around the post (and the ref may have blown that one dead anyway for a foul on Cameron Carter-Vickers). Even trailing the entire time, Iran mustered just 0.49 in xG (expected goals). Part of that is their own limitations. Part of that was the U.S.’s exemplary defending.
Still, they were put under the crush in injury time, partly due to their coach. Look, Gregg Berhalter has been a positive more than a negative. His initial game plans against England and Iran got them the four points that took them out of the group. The U.S. deserved to win all three matches. That didn’t happen without him. However, his substitutions have been bewildering. It’s unclear what it is Shaq Moore does for a living, but protecting leads late in a soccer game very clearly is not part of it. He got beat, he couldn’t complete a pass, and was just a constant check engine light in both of his appearances.
With 10 minutes of normal time to go, knowing there would be a ton of injury time because that’s how this tournament works, Berhalter went completely park-the-bus and hauled off a forward to bring on Walker Zimmerman and go to a 5-4-1. Zimmerman won all his headers, but it was far too early to do that and the organization went a little zany thanks to the introduction of a third centerback. That’s something you do with five minutes left, not 20.
Which meant the U.S. didn’t have any threat going forward. You can see out a game by carrying some threat of getting out on the counter. This is where Gio Reyna would have been a help, or even Jesus Ferreira. That’s because Haji Wright did nothing, including not even chasing down defenders or pressing to make their travels up the field that much harder. And he fluffed the one chance he got on the counter, one he could have just taken to the corner and ended the game. You need a forward in that spot who is going to run around a lot. If that’s not what Ferreira does, why’s he here? Why’s Deandre Yedlin here if we’re going to see Moore ahead of him?
But these questions are easier to ask when you win and advance. Who knows what the U.S. will have left in the tank for Saturday, but we can worry about that later. And Berhalter can say he took the youngest team in the tournament, the youngest team the U.S. has ever sported by far, and they can look as composed and in control as they did, as well as combining it with some old fashioned, U.S., fuck you attitude. That’s hardly nothing. That’s quite a big deal, in fact. CCV was excellent in his introduction to the lineup. Sargent was as well before getting hurt.
And it’s not over yet. The Americans get the Dutch next on Saturday, and they haven’t been impressive at all, and their midfield can be overrun. Just so happens the U.S. midfield has been playing out of its mind all tournament. The ride still has some turns to go, my fellow babies.