The knockout rounds of the World Cup don’t officially begin for another week, but for the U.S. men’s national team, the elimination games will begin with Tuesday’s group-stage finale against Iran.
The Americans have a very clear task to achieve at Al Thumama Stadium, win or go home. Anything short of a victory for the USMNT will bring an abrupt end to what has been a promising World Cup for the second-youngest team in the competition.
“Make no mistake about it. This is a knockout game for both teams, so it’s going to be a high level of intensity,” Gregg Berhalter said on Monday. “I love what Iran has done so far, especially the last game. A lot of commitment, really good counter-attacking. We expect it to be a hotly-contested game and we’ll be ready for it.”
The Iranians rebounded from an embarrassing 6-2 loss to England in their World Cup opener by beating Wales, 2-0. It took a pair of late Iran goals against a 10-man Welsh side to secure the victory, and leave Iran needing just a draw against the Americans to secure a place in the Round of 16.
“It’s going to be a tough battle,” Tyler Adams said. “We’re going to have to have a lot of energy in this game and make sure that we’re mentally prepared, pay attention to all the details in the game, set pieces, and their midfield is quite impressive, a very technical midfield. For me, it’s always difficult to play against a technical midfield when they can control the ball and control the game.”
Iran will come into the match with confidence after beating Wales, a performance that was a far cry from their lopsided loss to England.
“In the first game against England, I think Iran was was too passive,” Berhalter said. “And I think they learned that lesson, and were really aggressive in the second game, and really good team spirit. It’s almost like they played with nothing to lose and I think that’s when they were at their best. They showed the world what they can do, by beating a strong European team, a very physical European team.”
The Iranians are effective at counterattacking, and head coach Carlos Quieroz has a well-established reputation of being able to set up teams in defensive-minded setups that can be very difficult to break down. The fact that the Iranians need only a draw to secure a place in the Round of 16 would suggest they are likely to sit back and try to frustrate the Americans, but not everyone is convinced that is how Tuesday’s match will play out.
“After watching Iran’s last game, I would not expect them to do that, because they went after the game and they were looking for three points,” Tyler Adams said when asked about Iran playing ultra-defensively against the USMNT. “You could tell from the mentality of the group. They were attacking, counter-attacking, doing everything they needed to do. Fighting in every single duel, tackles, every single moment of the game looked like it could be their moment to score a goal. So I’m not expecting to do that.
“We know that it’s a knockout, and of course, we have to attack. I’m not the coach of their team so I’m not exactly sure what they’re going to do but, based off of last game, I’m expecting them to come after it.”
The Americans have enjoyed an excellent tournament from a defensive standpoint, allowing zero goals in the run of play, with Gareth Bale’s penalty kick goal the only blemish on the USMNT’s defensive ledger. The challenge for the USMNT will be creating more chances and boosting an attack that has struggled to generate dangerous scoring opportunities.
The need for more attacking production could lead to some lineup changes, with Jesus Ferreira a possibility at striker after Josh Sargent and Haji Wright failed to produce goals in the target striker role. As far as Berhalter is concerned, that lack of production is more about the supporting cast than his strikers.
“It’s up to the rest of the group to give them quality service, that they can finish off some of these opportunities,” Berhalter said. “Hopefully, in this Iran game, we can get some some good balls into the box and help these guys out a little bit.”
The USMNT are the favorites heading into Tuesday’s match, and will be looking to avoid repeating the history made when these teams last met at the World Cup. The Iranians defeated the Americans, 2-1, at the 1998 World Cup, a tournament that saw the USMNT crash out in last place.
“That game just sticks in my mind and burns in my mind,” Berhalter said of the 1998 World Cup meeting between USA and Iran. “And what I saw from the opening whistle is one team that really wanted to win the game and one team that didn’t really want to win the game. Iran wanted to win the game with everything, and they played really committed, really focused.
“For us to have a chance to advance (on Tuesday), that’s going to have to be the mindset of our group,” Berhalter said. “Because we know exactly what Iran is going to bring. A well-coached team, very committed team. And we don’t want to make the same mistakes of the past. We want to learn from that and be able to put it in good performance.”