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The USMNT Passed Their World Cup Test. Now the Fun Part Begins.

Progression to the knockout stage is a remarkable achievement for a young, promising team. And they might not be finished.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A goal, Weston McKennie prophesied, would be coming.

“If you create a hundred chances, at least one of them is gonna go in eventually,” foretold the midfielder with the swatches of red, white, and blue in his hair. The United States men’s national team had just failed to score a goal against England in their second group stage match at the World Cup. They needed a goal against Iran on Tuesday in their third match. No two ways about it. They needed to win to advance to the round of 16—a tie or a loss would see Iran through and eliminate the Americans.

Captain and midfield destroyer Tyler Adams hoped the liberating goal wouldn’t take as long to materialize as Landon Donovan’s 91st-minute winner did against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, which also secured a place in the round of 16. It was the exact same scenario, after all. A necessary win against an unsexy but sly opponent. “Hopefully not as dramatic as that goal—don’t want to leave it until the end,” Adams said.

It wasn’t. They didn’t.

In the 38th minute, McKennie floated a lovely diagonal ball for Sergiño Dest, who nodded it into the path of Christian Pulisic. It was a play they had practiced, one the coaching staff’s research knew would be there for them. Pulisic broke through traffic, crashed the ball into the net, and then got clattered by goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand. Pulisic felt dizziness after the collision and was taken to a hospital at halftime as a precautionary measure. He was diagnosed with a pelvic contusion but said he would be available for Saturday’s game against the Netherlands. Pulisic cheered on his team from his hospital bed and had a raucous FaceTime call from there with his teammates in the locker room after the game.

“How many goals has he scored like that in his career?” Adams later marveled. “He’ll do anything for this team in order for us to win.”

If the goal came relatively early, that didn’t make the remainder of the game any less stressful. The Americans had already played the two youngest starting lineups of the tournament in their first two games and they went younger still against Iran, with an average age of 24 years and 321 days. But they kept their cool and shoveled away one Iranian attack after another as the decade-like nine and a half minutes of injury time crept by.

“The end of the game is really what I’m most proud of because it’s the mark of determination, an extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and get the win, not buckle,” said U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter.

“You have to enjoy that adversity,” added veteran central defender Tim Ream. “You have to enjoy that pressure of a team throwing everything at you. If you don’t enjoy it and you start panicking, bad things happen. I looked around and saw 11 calm guys on the field.”

The win felt seismic, like a seminal accomplishment for a young team. A marker of competence, a proof of concept for all their promise. And it was. This was just the second USMNT win in eight games; only its sixth victory at the World Cup since 1990, the beginning of the program’s modern era, a stretch of 29 games. Pulisic scored only its 27th goal in that span. It was the second time the team managed to post two shutouts in a single World Cup since 1930, the tournament’s inaugural event.

The trouble with assessing a World Cup campaign, whether in real time or in hindsight, is that four years of work boil down to the smallest margins: a bounce here, a runner not tracked there, a foul not spotted, a sprint started a fraction too early or too late, a ball that does or doesn’t cross the line by an inch.

If Clint Dempsey’s shot doesn’t squeak through Rob Green’s arms and trickle over the line against England in 2010, it’s entirely possible the U.S. doesn’t survive the group stage. It certainly wouldn’t have if Donovan had not summoned his last reserves of energy and made a trailing run in extra time against Algeria. Donovan’s goal produced an iconic moment in USMNT history, something of an inflection point for the sport stateside.

If John Brooks doesn’t head home one of his three national team goals late on against Ghana in the USMNT’s opener four years later in Brazil, the Yanks never make it out of the group. Conversely, if Chris Wondolowski gets just a little bit more of his right foot around a ball dropped into his path by Jermaine Jones’s header and gets the shot on target, the Americans likely beat Belgium to reach the quarterfinal.

If a referee’s whistle rings out in Ulsan, South Korea, when Torsten Frings clearly blocks Berhalter’s close-range effort from going into the goal with his hand, the Americans surely reach the semifinals at the 2002 World Cup. Then again, if the USA doesn’t eke out a win over Portugal and a tie with South Korea in the group stage, it would have exited early.

If. If. If.

Those three World Cup campaigns were all remembered as successes. They very nearly weren’t. But they also could have yielded more glory still. These are the margins at this unforgiving tournament, at this fickle and cruel mega-event.

This young United States men’s national team learned this lesson the hard way the past 10 days. They had their chances for a win against Wales. Against England, too. They could have had this thing sewn up before playing Iran but had to settle for ties instead. Their vulnerability felt acute during several moments against Iran as the USMNT desperately defended a 1-0 lead.

If—that word again—any of Iran’s chances make it into the American net, this golden generation is suddenly a disappointment. Instead, they have been certified as 48-carat.

They had impressed Iran’s veteran coach, Carlos Queiroz, who was once, almost three decades ago, commissioned to write a plan for U.S. Soccer to develop better players. “When you play against a team of Ferraris—they are very fast—the best way to play is to close the highways,” he said of his team’s defensive tactics. “We created three opportunities to score a goal in the area and we created even more chances than the United States. The gods of football reward those that score goals.”

In a sense, three or four or perhaps even five games in Qatar would dictate the narrative of not one World Cup but two. The unspoken truth about this campaign is that it also acted as a test of the USMNT’s readiness for 2026, when the country will host the World Cup for a second time, along with Canada and Mexico. On the one hand, this is wholly unfair. After all, this U.S. team was the youngest in World Cup qualifying by about two years. Only one team member, reserve right back DeAndre Yedlin, who has barely played, had even been to a World Cup before. On the other hand, narratives don’t care about fairness.

The thing the team needed to avoid was to flop badly in Qatar and cast a dark shadow over the 2026 edition of the tournament, as well. “I think everybody is going there with the mindset that we want to do a good job,” Berhalter said before the tournament. “We want to be brave in the way we play. This is a great opportunity for us. I just hope that when we get there we’re ready to take advantage of it. Because we really do see this as a responsibility. We want to get the public behind us. We want to get a ton of momentum going into 2026, but it all starts now.”

The England tie was watched by some 20 million Americans and shown on the big screen in Times Square. Afterward, Berhalter reiterated that his team understood it needed to build a following. “We want to capture the public’s attention,” he said. “We want to perform at a high level. We want to give them something to be proud of. And a night like tonight helps. But there has to be more coming.”

More did come.

There used to be something unpretentious about the national team. A sort of all-is-fair, let’s-just-get-it-done mentality that liberated players and coaches from scrutiny of their motives or methods. If the results were there, everybody was satisfied. Now, the Americans are expected to look a certain way. They have joined in the pageantry of the beautiful game.

So what is the ceiling for this team?

Against Wales, the Americans dazzled in the first half with their audacious play and their uncut swagger on the ball. The English gave them a different set of problems, yet the Yanks were lauded for taking the game to the Premier League stars for large stretches of the game. The first half against Iran yielded a commanding performance, even if the U.S. closed up shop in the second.

Now, the Americans will face the Netherlands, three-time losing World Cup finalists and, in the eyes of their laureled manager, Louis van Gaal, a candidate to finally win it this time around. Others don’t seem so convinced, diagnosing a Dutch team that, uncharacteristically, has the world’s best depth in central defense and is thin everywhere else, especially up front. Three group stage performances that ranged from underwhelming to merely whelming haven’t done anything to back up van Gaal’s claim that this Dutch edition is better than the team he took to the semifinals at the 2014 World Cup.

If the U.S. should make it through that game, it would match its modern high-water mark, that quarterfinal in 2002, and face the winner of Argentina and Australia. “It’s a huge opportunity for us,” said Adams. “We’ve obviously played against good competition here like England. The Netherlands could be another favorite to win the World Cup.”

But the Americans will remain undaunted by their opponents, shorn of the inferiority complex of their national team predecessors. They have yet to see evidence that the other teams in Qatar are any more special than they are. “For us it’s going in there with no fear and playing the way we have this entire tournament,” said forward Brenden Aaronson.

“It’s a great opportunity but it’s not something that we’re going into it thinking it’s an honor,” said Berhalter, who played his club soccer in the Netherlands for six years early on in his career. “We deserve to be in the position we’re in and we want to keep going. We don’t want to be home on Wednesday.”

Part of belonging is acting like you belong.

“A lot of people have [the Netherlands] as the favorites but a lot of people didn’t think we’d make it out of the group as well,” echoed McKennie. “This team is young, has a lot of energy. This team has a lot of people that doubt us and we continue to prove ’em wrong.”

After the win over Iran, the talk among the U.S. players wasn’t about awe or satisfaction. It was about the ways they would leverage the experience. “This win was really good for us—and also having a win where we had to suffer a lot,” said McKennie. “Because in the next game against the Netherlands it might take the same thing.”

On Saturday, the U.S. will have another chance to form impressions, to remake the national team’s brand ahead of 2026. “I’m sure there’s a bunch of people back home watching,” said Berhalter. “This group starts to take shape based on these performances. You see how resilient this group is, how unified this group is. You see what type of energy output they put into every single game. And then along the way there’s some pretty good soccer. That’s the American spirit, the way this group plays.”

After the England game, Berhalter made his players something of a promise. If they got through the Iran game, the remainder of the tournament would get “fucking fun, boys.”

This U.S. team is reaching high, feeling for its ceiling. It has already done what it was expected to. Now it’s time for the fun part.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is covering the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, his third, for The Ringer. He is writing a book about the United States men’s national team. He teaches at Marist College.