It’s been tough to focus on the soccer for much of the buildup to the United States men’s national team’s decisive Group B closer against Iran Tuesday.
The ongoing unrest in Iran, the protests kicked off by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody, and the regime’s subsequent crackdown on them, has overshadowed even the long history of enmity between the two nations. Iran fans have transported the protests to the stands at the World Cup and have been confronted by authorities for doing so. The Iranian team refused to sing their national anthem ahead of its first game against England but returned to doing so for its second against Wales, with forward Mehdi Taremi and coach Carlos Queiroz claiming they were ready to focus on soccer matters.
U.S. Soccer waded into this arena in an indirect manner over the weekend with a series of social media posts that removed the Islamic Republic emblem from the center of Iran’s tri-color flag on schedule and standings graphics. The move was intended as a show of support for the protests, and was treated as such in the comments by some Iranians. But it also drew the ire of the Iranian federation, which appealed for the U.S. to be banned from the tournament, citing a FIFA rule prohibiting offending the dignity of a participating country. U.S. Soccer reversed course and replaced the flag, and later admitted that neither the players, nor coach Gregg Berhalter, nor the U.S. State Department were consulted before making the change. Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams participated in a tense pre-match press conference Monday, fielding questions from Iranian media about racial discrimination, support for the team in America, and the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf. (Adams in particular received high marks for his answers.)
It’s unlikely that FIFA will determine Group B’s representatives in the knockout rounds by fiat based on the actions of the respective soccer federations’ communications departments. Instead, the team to advance will be decided by what happens in front of each goal. That could be a problem for the USMNT.
The United States bossed the midfield against a gifted English side and played lockdown defense for 179 World Cup minutes so far. Unfortunately, it could do both of these things for another full game and still find itself heading home Tuesday evening. To stay alive at the World Cup, the U.S. has to win Tuesday versus Iran, and to win, it will have to score goals against a team that knows a draw will likely be sufficient for it to advance. The USMNT’s area of need lines up with its biggest weakness. Somebody is going to have the chance to be the hero.
The obvious answer is still a good one. Christian Pulisic came the closest to scoring of any U.S. player on Friday, beating England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford with a rising shot that thwomped off the crossbar, mere inches too high. His pass created Tim Weah’s goal against Wales, the only one the U.S. has scored at the 2022 World Cup. Pulisic has scored the winning goal two out of the past four times the U.S. has played Mexico. He takes penalties and has been pretty good at them, a not-insignificant factor in a game the U.S. will hope is played close to the Iranian box.
But it may not be a game that suits its strengths. Iran will advance with a draw unless Wales upsets England, which means it essentially starts the game with a one-goal lead. More than anything else, it will attempt to prevent the U.S. from scoring the goal that could knock it out. After being consistently beaten to balls in the box against England, it shored up the defense against Wales, allowing only eight successful passes into the penalty area.
Pulisic is more dangerous in the open field. When faced with a set defense, he often over-dribbles down blind alleys and gets the ball stabbed away from him. It’s as if he feels he’s not adding any value if he doesn’t beat his man, but the result of those plays is too often a net negative, especially when defenses key in on him. Turn the ball over in a dangerous spot, and Iran will be breaking the other way through skilled forwards Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun. Despite their defensive posture, Iran outshot Wales 21–10.
The solution for this that many U.S. fans are clamoring for is a start for 20-year-old playmaker Gio Reyna. Reyna’s lack of minutes has been a source of controversy and confusion in the tournament thus far. Berhalter declined to sub him into the Wales game despite the U.S. needing a goal. (Reports from the stadium seemed to indicate he wasn’t even warming up with the potential substitutes.) Messaging in the aftermath was mixed: Berhalter initially claimed Reyna was held out as a precaution due to tightness in his hamstring, but Reyna said after the game he was good to go, and Berhalter seemed to change tack the next day to say he chose Jordan Morris for tactical reasons. For those inclined to believe that Berhalter is incompetent, the fact that he doesn’t value Reyna’s obvious gifts was yet another strike against the coach. But Berhalter has reliably used Reyna whenever he has been healthy; the far more common issue is that Reyna isn’t available due to his injury problems. The obfuscation then may have been meant to keep opponents guessing about his availability; something Berhalter already did in qualifying with Pulisic.
Reyna didn’t start against England, which conveniently gave fuel to both theories. He was finally subbed on in that game for the last 11 minutes, but made little impact in those scant minutes. If he is healthy enough to play, and if he’s not really in Berhalter’s doghouse, then the Iran game could be the perfect showcase for his passing and close control. Reyna can receive the ball in dangerous spots without his touch letting him down, and he can collapse defenses to create space for his teammates and find them on the other side. Weah’s role for the United States is primarily running in behind defenses, as he did against Wales for his goal, but there may not be much of that space against Iran if they choose to sit deep and attempt to counter. If Reyna is healthy enough to play from the start, then he may be able to justify Berhalter’s circumspection with his hamstrings. This is the game best suited for his skillset.
Reyna can score goals, but he can also set them up, finding Pulisic, Weston McKennie out of midfield, or whichever of the American forwards Berhalter elects to start. It’s not ideal that that person is so far down on the list of Potential American Goalscorers in this game, but aside from brief flashes from Ricardo Pepi and then Jesús Ferreira in qualifying, that’s been the story for the U.S. for the better part of a year. Josh Sargent got the start against Wales, and did well to hold the ball up before dumping to Pulisic on the goal, but was largely anonymous after that, the U.S. struggling to find him with its passing. Ditto Haji Wright, who started against England and had one header flash wide amid an evening spent mostly holding his shape to prevent England’s midfielders from receiving passes from the center backs.
Either one of these could start again, or Berhalter could opt for Ferreira, who’s more of a playmaker but less of a target in the box than the others. Picking Ferreira would be akin to admitting that Berhalter thinks the U.S. will have more success beating Iran through the middle of the field, combining in the box or finding runners in the seams between center back and fullback, than on the outside, where it will be easier to get a cross in but harder to do anything with it when it is in front of the goal. That decision could end up defining the USMNT’s tournament, and Berhalter’s tenure in charge of it.