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USA Handled the Challenge Against Iran in More Ways Than One

The do-or-die World Cup match was played under the context of Iran’s anti-government protests and a historic, geopolitical rivalry. Despite it all, a young American team coped with the pressure.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I doubted. Forgive me, but it’s true. Somewhere in the middle of the first half, with the United States and Iran tied 0-0, I caught myself thinking that it had been a long time since the U.S. had scored a goal. Tim Weah had fired in his clinical shot against Wales in the 36th minute of the team’s first Group B match, the lone American goal of the World Cup so far. Since then, we’d gone 160-odd scoreless minutes combined, first against the Welsh, then against England in a 0-0 draw—a brave and encouraging performance, but still, no goals—and now another half hour against Iran. Three hours, maybe a little more. It was starting to feel like a thing, the American inability to score. We needed a win to advance to the knockout rounds; the Iranians needed only a draw. We’d have to score to go through. Could we?

The U.S. had clearly been the better team in the match so far. We’d moved the ball quickly and aggressively down the flanks, but cross after cross sailed into the Iranian box without producing a moment of euphoria. Runs were smothered by Iranian defenders. Shots went high and wide. American midfielder Weston McKennie, always visible on screen due to his tufts of red-white-and-blue-dyed hair, charged into the opposition’s box. Still, there was no joy to be had.

And I caught myself thinking, Maybe this is who we are. The team is clearly a work in progress; the 11 players who started against Iran are, on average, just 24 years old. On Tuesday, the day of the game, the talented midfielder Yunus Musah, a major contributor to the American World Cup campaign, celebrated his 20th birthday. Maybe we were a promising team that hadn’t yet developed a killer instinct. Maybe we were good enough to draw against top-class opposition like England, but not mature enough to win against tenacious midtier competition like Iran.

And then, in the 38th minute, it happened. A long ball found U.S. fullback Sergiño Dest at the right edge of the Iranian area, just as Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ talisman, came crashing into the box. Dest’s cross found Pulisic in full flight, and Pulisic, directly in front of the goal, smashed the ball into the net. He collided, hard, with Iranian goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand, and lay on the ground for several minutes before getting up and trying to continue. Ultimately, he couldn’t, leaving the game at halftime to be replaced by Brenden Aaronson, but by then, the wonder had been worked, the deed had been done. The U.S. were winning 1-0 and needed only to preserve that lead in order to advance to the round of 16.

The young American team had passed one test by scoring under the pressure of a must-win World Cup game. Now, it had to face another: Stop a desperate adversary from equalizing for an entire half of soccer, a half that, under these circumstances, was bound to feel as though it dragged on longer than the first two and a half games combined.

In fact, though, the American players had faced another challenge before the match even began. So had the Iranians. That was the challenge of coping with the deeply bizarre and uncomfortable political context in which the match took place. The atmosphere of a U.S.-Iran game was always going to be politically charged, but in this case, the political charge took on an added jolt due to the complexity of the ongoing protests in Iran.

Since mid-September, Iranian society has been embroiled in large-scale demonstrations, led by women and girls, against Iran’s theocratic government. Americans are broadly united in support of the protests. At the World Cup, Iranian players earned widespread admiration in the United States for declining to sing Iran’s national anthem before their opening match against England.

At the same time, though, it seems safe to say that beneath this admiration, there is still, for many Americans, a lurking sense of Iran as a geopolitical nemesis. The crypto-racist provocations of old Bush-era “Axis of Evil” rhetoric still have a residual influence on many people, as does the grainy mental afterimage of Ayatollah Khomeini ranting about the U.S. as the “Great Satan” in the 1980s.

So how was this supposed to work? Were American fans supposed to identify Iran’s national soccer team with the hope and fear and heroism of the protests? Or were Americans supposed to be thinking about their historical antagonism toward the Iranian government—a government that reportedly threatened its soccer players’ families with “torture and imprisonment,” according to CNN, if they refused to sing the anthem before Tuesday’s match? The rulers of a country and the people of a country are often very different entities, but the distinction is hard to maintain amid the bright, simple, primary-colors nationalism of a sporting event like the World Cup.

On the other side of the equation, it’s not at all clear that most Iranian people see Americans as enemies. But years of official propaganda depicting the United States as a monstrous oppressor inevitably color the atmosphere. This could be seen clearly at the surreal pre-match press conference on Monday. State-sponsored Iranian journalists peppered American players with questions about U.S. immigration and military policies, pressed them on American racism, and, at one point, demanded to know why American coach Gregg Berhalter hadn’t pressured the Navy to move U.S. ships out of the Persian Gulf.

So who, exactly, was supposed to hate whom here? Who were the enemies and who were the allies? Were “we” against “them,” or were those of us who sympathized with one another across national lines against the forces—theocratic or imperialist—that wanted to frustrate and subvert that sympathy? It was hard to say, and the uncertainty of the answer built up a kind of ambient pressure that mingled, on both sides, with the pressure of a do-or-die match. Throw in the memory of the U.S.’s loss to Iran in another politically charged match at the 1998 World Cup and all the dissonance became too much to manage. The World Cup does many things well, but it is not an engine for processing nuance.

For an inexperienced soccer team, it would have been easy for the geopolitical tension to distract from the game itself. Fortunately, once the match kicked off, the players got down to business, and the world-historical turbulence subsided into the background, at least for two hours. It was a tough match, but not, as far as we could make out on TV, a hostile one. Both sides played hard, but the energy was earnest and positive.

In the second half, desperate to hold on to the lead, Berhalter made some substitutions that left American fans incredulous. Shore up the defense, sure, but Shaq Moore for Dest, when the latter had been so vital on both sides of the ball? Really? Then again, it wouldn’t be a Berhalter match without a few confounding tactical choices. The U.S. switched to a back five, seemingly content to absorb Iranian pressure and defend for their lives around the goal. As stressful as this was to watch—and it was very stressful; when Saman Ghoddos curled a shot just wide in the 66th minute, I nearly threw my sofa through the wall—it worked. The young team stayed firm amid the flurry of the Iranian attacks, held on, and scraped out the win.

The negative interpretation of this match would be that it shouldn’t have been as close as it was, given the superiority the U.S. displayed in the first half. The positive interpretation is that Iran is genuinely a decent team, and to beat them, the Americans faced multiple scenarios that seemed designed to expose the weaknesses of their youth and survived each one. I’m going with the positive interpretation, though this may be due to the endorphin tidal wave that hit me after the final whistle rather than any rational argument.

In any case, we’re through to the round of 16, where we’ll play a Netherlands team that’s looked good, but not unstoppable. Is it just the endorphins telling me that this might be a winnable match? That if we can contain the very tall and very explosive Dutch winger Cody Gakpo, we might have a chance?

I’m not sure. What I know is that I came into this match as a doubter and left it feeling something more terrifying and unpredictable than doubt. We’re playing a knockout game at the World Cup for the first time in eight years! I’m feeling hope.