The USA’s path to the World Cup knockout stages | The Triangle
Men's Soccer

The USA’s path to the World Cup knockout stages

Photo by CLF | Pexels

After eight long years, the USA has finally returned to the FIFA World Cup. Heading into the tournament with a very talented yet also very inexperienced team, there were mixed expectations for the Stars and Stripes. This was made even more complicated when the US was drawn into a tough group alongside England, Iran and Wales. Most pundits within the country were confident enough that this team could make the Round of 16, though they reiterated it would not be easy. On the other hand, many from outside the US predicted a first-round elimination. 

But with the narrow yet deserved 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday afternoon, the US has officially punched their ticket to the knockout stage, setting up a meeting with the Netherlands in the Round of 16 on Saturday morning. Given the youth and inexperience in this squad, the highest realistic expectation for this team was to make the Round of 16, which they did, meaning they achieved their goal and anything past this point is just an added bonus. However, that does not mean the US will roll over against the Netherlands, as I am sure they will give their all. But in anticipation of that matchup, let’s look back at how the US got this far.

USA 1-1 Wales

The USA’s first game at the 2022 World Cup and the country’s first World Cup match since their 2-1 loss to Belgium in July 2014 was against Wales, who had to fight tooth and nail to qualify for the tournament. While this Welsh team may not be Europe’s most talented, they still have a strong footballing pedigree boasting talented players like Ben Davies, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and of course, Gareth Bale. They also did well at the last two iterations of the UEFA European Championship. That being said, this was seen as probably the USA’s easiest game to win by comparison. 

The American manager, Gregg Berhalter, decided to switch up the starting XI, starting Josh Sargent up top and Timothy Weah out on the right wing. Both decisions ultimately paid off in the long run. As the game kicked off, the US came out the gate swinging, applying heavy pressure to the Welsh backline and relentlessly creating attack after attack. The US nearly scored in the first 10 minutes when a cross from Weah was accidentally headed by the Welsh center-back, Joe Rodon, at his own goal, only for Wayne Hennessey to save it. In that same run of play, the ball was sent back into the Welsh box and was met by Sargent but his header smacked off the post.

Late in the first half, the intense US pressure would pay off as a turnover in play saw the star of the team, Christian Pulisic, released into open space with the ball. With a tricky dribble that attracted four Welsh defenders towards him, Pulisic played a deft through ball to Weah who was able to slip a shot past Hennessey, sending the USA up 1-0.

Into the second half, the US continued to press Wales but this strategy eventually took its toll and the American players started to become visibly fatigued. This, coupled with Wales switching up their formation with the substitution of Kieffer Moore, saw the Welsh gain a foothold in the match. Davies had a header that was expertly saved by the American number one, Matt Turner, and Moore had a close header off a corner. Then, just as it looked like the US would ride out the 1-0 lead, Ramsey played a cross to Bale. With a tackle more akin to American football, the defender, Walker Zimmerman took out Bale with a kick from behind and the referee had to call a penalty. Bale stepped up to take the penalty, and without a doubt in his mind, cannoned the ball into the side netting, tying the score 1-1 and further solidifying his status as one of the most clutch players of all time. Despite playing so well in the first half, the US found themselves robbed of a victory as they went into their next game against England.

England 0-0 USA

The next match against England was seen as a match by pundits which the US would almost certainly lose. The question was not “how could the US beat England?” but rather “how could the US minimize their loss to England as much as possible?” This sentiment was not baseless, as England has one of the best teams in the world. Only narrowly losing to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 Final after making the 2018 World Cup Semifinals, this English squad is filled with truly world-class players such as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and many more. It also did not help that England just came off a 6-2 smashing victory over Iran in their last match.

Despite the media not giving them a chance, the American players refused to count themselves out and took the game to the English. The best chance of the game for England came in the tenth minute when intricate buildup play between Jude Bellingham and Sterling opened up a clear chance for Kane, the top-scorer of the previous World Cup. But with a heroic block, Zimmerman made up for his mistake against Wales and deflected Kane’s shot wide. And from that moment on, it was complete domination by the US. The American players were first to the 50-50 balls, they were winning headers, blocking off passing lanes and pressuring the English players into mistakes. This aggression seemed to have shocked the English and they reverted to their much-maligned defensive shape. Haji Wright had a header that went wide and Weston McKennie sent a one-touch shot over the bar, but the USA’s best chance came and went as Pulisic received the ball on the left wing and with a quick change of pace, created some space for himself and sent a rocket of a shot flying towards the English goal. Unfortunately for him, the ball struck the crossbar. 

This continued into the second half. Even as the US players started to tire themselves out, England barely had any clear chances with McKennie and the American captain, Tyler Adams, doing a wonderful job of shutting down England’s midfield. In the 90- plus third minute, England had one last opportunity during a freekick when Kane latched onto a looping ball from Luke Shaw. But luckily, Tim Ream was able to just slightly put him off balance and the header flew wide. And with that, the match ended 0-0. Despite England literally creating the sport of football and despite all the criticisms they have of Americans calling the sport “soccer,” this result means that the English have yet to defeat the US at the World Cup after three meetings, dating back to 1950. From an American point of view, this match sent a shockwave of confidence through the nation. Not only did the US not lose, but they were the better team and probably should have won.

Iran 0-1 USA

Even with the USA’s draw against England which almost feels like a victory, the team was still in dire straits heading into their last group stage match against Iran. Because they were unable to hold on to their lead over Wales in the first match, the US was sitting on two points, behind England on four and Iran on three. After Iran’s heavy defeat to England in their opening game, most people had written off the Iranians. But it soon became evident that this loss was most likely due to the political controversy back home, with the whole ordeal possibly distracting the players from their mission here in Qatar. These internal divisions were stamped out by their second match, though, and Iran outplayed Wales professionally, running away with a dramatic 2-0 victory. 

This meant that in order to advance, the US absolutely had to win their last match. A loss or even a draw would not be enough. Meanwhile, all Iran had to do was hold on for a draw. Heading into this match, the players knew that Iran would not be an easy opponent as they are one of the best teams in Asia and even had a respectable finish at the last World Cup. Not to mention Iran have a dangerous player up top in Mehdi Taremi, who is a top striker for the Portuguese club, Porto;  he scored both of Iran’s goals against England. Then, of course, the political tension between the two nations was always going to add a little extra pressure as well.

Playing through the pressure, the US started this match like their previous two –  with relentless attack after attack, putting Iran through the vise grip. Utilizing their talent on the wings, the American frontline bullied the Iranian backline and already in the eleventh minute, Pulisic had a header saved by Iran’s goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand. Only five minutes later, Sergiño Dest had a dangerous cross that had to be palmed away by Beiranvand. The Iranian number one was called into action yet again after Sargent’s shot was deflected and fell right to Weah who tried to head it toward the goal only for Beiranvand to save it yet again. 

Then in the thirty-eighth minute, it was utter jubilation for the USA. McKennie sent a long ball over the top to Dest who was able to redirect it into the box with a powerful header. Rushing towards Iran’s goal was none other than Pulisic who was able to contort his body and poke the ball home, sending the US into the lead as the crowd went absolutely crazy. Pulisic even slightly injured himself while scoring the goal, showing the sheer determination that this team possesses. Right before halftime, the US thought they went 2-0 up after another through-ball from McKennie was steered in by Weah but it was unfortunately called back for offside.

Now heading into the second half, all the US had to do was hold on to this lead and they would reach the promised land. But still, the job was not done. The US had a few chances early on but knowing they were facing elimination, the Iranians cranked up the pressure and carved out a few chances of their own. Saman Ghoddos had a header which he sent up over the bar. Not long after, Iran had another dangerous move where Ali Gholizadeh was able to dribble past Jedi Robinson and send a low ball into the box. Taremi was unable to reach the ball but it fell to Ghoddos again who sent a curling shot towards goal which missed the top corner by mere inches. But Iran still could not find their elusive goal as the minutes went by. 

Into injury time, things got chaotic as the US was desperately trying to hold on while Iran kept pushing. With a freekick in the 90-plus third minute, Morteza Pouraliganji sent a diving header towards goal but it was narrowly off-target. With about a minute left in the match, a long ball over the top was met by a header aimed for Taremi who made a dangerous run. Turner came out of goal to intercept the ball but Taremi slipped on the grass and collided with Turner. In the midst of the chaos, the ball bounced past Turner and was rolling painstakingly towards the wide-open US goal only for Zimmerman to come in and clear the ball off the line, saving the day for his country.

Just like that, the referee blew the final whistle and the match ended 1-0. Players from both teams collapsed to the ground after the intense mental and physical pressure as tears rolled down their cheeks. For the US, they accomplished their goal— into the Round of 16 they go. Who knows what the future holds for this talented US team? But whatever happens against the Netherlands, the players can feel incredibly honored for making their country proud.