A social media revolution and a pandemic has changed many things between 1998 and now. Somewhere on the list will also be the end of a 24-year wait for USA. With a 1-0 win, their men’s football team has squared a World Cup head-to-head record against Iran following the 2-1 loss in Lyon. And they did with by fielding the youngest starting 11 of the 2022 World Cup. USA will play Netherlands in the round of 16.
To Christian Pulisic goes the credit of making the difference between teams who had never met in a World Cup finals match this century. Pulisic continued an excellent tournament with a brave effort running in to meet Sergino Dest’s excellent cushioning of a Weston McKennie floater in the 38th minute after Tyler Adams set the move going.
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In the process, Pulisic hurt himself following a collision with Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, who returned after recovering from an injury in the game against England. Pulisic needed treatment for nearly five minutes but returned to play till half-time when he was substituted.
Till then, Iran were sure in their defending. Having beaten Wales, they needed a draw for what would have been a first qualification to the round of 16. After two draws, and one goal, this was a must-win game for USA. Iran eschewed the press and set up a middle to low defensive block. Milad Mohammadi and Mortaza Pouralinganji tag teamed to contain Dest and despite greater possession, USA could not make an impact.
Timothy Weah could not get enough power behind a header after a Josh Sargent shot was blocked and a Pulisic header found Beiranvand. A rare defensive blip had the ball pinging in the Iran penalty area before USA midfielder Yunus Musah, who turned 20 on Tuesday, shot over.
After a brisk start to this high decibel game, literally and otherwise, which was more about geopolitics than the status of Gio Reyna’s injury – his father Claudio had told his former national teammate Eric Wynalda that the player was fit countering what had been said by the USA about the forward, Iran focused in containment. Their first corner-kick came in the 89th minute.
Iran had USA pinned in their penalty area inside five minutes but were tentative going forward for most of the first half barring Ahmad Noorolahi breaking through in the 39th minute. Noorolahi though couldn’t get to the ball forwarded by Ali Gholizadeh by an excellent block from Cameron Carter-Vickers. With USA too not pressing like they did against Wales, Iran could not play balls behind the defence. So after starting the game with Ramin Rezaeian going around McKennie and winning a foul Iran couldn’t get enough balls to Sardar Azmoun, the most central of their three forwards.
The goal spurred USA and they buzzed in Iran’s half chasing in packs. Sargent broke free but his cut-back was intercepted and then Weah was off-side after McKennie played a clever inside pass. Like USA, Iran too played with 10 i but because Ali Karimi looked to have hurt his groin while stretching for a ball, they needed a substitution before half-time.
Iran head coach Carlos Queiroz took off Azmoun at half-time, moved Mehdi Taremi to a more central role and introduced Saman Ghoddos. The new player tried a header in the 51st and, as chants of ‘Iran, Iran’ reverberated around the Al Thumama Stadium, a curler in the 65th minute which did not bend to his will. Iran’s last chance came off a Pouraliganji header, the defender nearly swooping to conquer. A VAR call for a push by Carter-Vikcers on Taremi saw nothing unfair. After nine minutes of stoppage time in the second half, when referee Antonio Mateu blew the final whistle, the Iranians slumped on the ground, there were tears and Taremi was shaking his head as if in disbelief.