Ken Early: Christian Pulisic’s painful goal the difference as USA beat Iran

USA progress to last-16 in second place behind England thanks to first half goal

The United States will play the Netherlands in the second round of the World Cup, after Christian Pulisic’s first-half goal gave them a 1-0 win over Iran at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha.

Iran arrived at the game with so much motivational material to pin up on the dressingroom wall they hardly had anywhere to hang up their shirts. The Iranian media had seen the build-up to the game as little more than a litany of American provocation and insult.

First Jurgen Klinsmann, ex-coach of the US team, had suggested on the BBC that cheating was somehow hard-wired into Iranian culture. Then the Americans had apparently insulted the Iranian flag, by posting an image on social media of Iran’s flag with the central emblem removed, in what they later claimed was a show of “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights.” (The missing emblem is a stylised representation of the word “Allah”).

US Soccer later removed the posts featuring the altered flags, but the Iranian football federation demanded that the US be thrown out of the World Cup as punishment.


In the pre-match press conference Iranian journalists had questioned the US coach, Gregg Berhalter, and captain, Tyler Adams, on matters ranging from whether the US fleet should be pulled out of the Persian Gulf, through whether Americans were currently too worried about high inflation to support the team, to how they felt about representing a country where there was so much discrimination against black people.

Berhalter had been asked whether Klinsmann’s remarks constituted a declaration of “psychological warfare” on Iran. He sagged with exasperation before answering the question: “I’m up here to discuss the game, USA-Iran, not Jurgen Klinsmann.”

He seemed not to appreciate that at the World Cup, and especially this World Cup, this “external noise” is the game. Johan Cruyff used to say that the thing that made managing Barcelona so difficult was the entorno, the environment – by which he meant the hurricane of fevered egos that perpetually whirls around the club – treacherous directors, sulking players, dishonest journalists, hysterical fans. The thing that makes the World Cup so compelling is that each team’s entorno is an entire country.

No doubt for this game the Iranian entorno was more turbulent and passionate than the American’s. A rolling roar of drums and vuvuzelas urged on the team as they tried to emulate the team of 1998, who defeated the US 2-1 at the World Cup in France.

The pattern of the match was clear after a few minutes. The Iranians were taller and stronger and the Americans faster and more technical. The American midfield of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and the superb Yunus Musah – celebrating his 20th birthday – were dominating the ball. The question was whether they could turn that domination into goals.

Iran had the opposite problem. Mehdi Taremi has scored five goals for Porto in the Champions League – as many as Haaland and Lewandowski. But his team-mates were hardly able to create a chance for him. Iran’s best opportunities seemed to come from counter-attacks following American corners.

The decisive moment came in the 38th minute. McKennie hit a beautiful diagonal chip, weighted perfectly for right-back Sergino Dest, outflanking the Iran defence, to head across goal into the corridor of uncertainty between goalkeeper and defence.

One thing we have learned about Iran’s keeper Alireza Beiranvand is that he believes a goalkeeper who ventures into the corridor of uncertainty must do so armed with a sense of inner certainty. The goalkeeper must go for the ball with absolute conviction, regardless of who or what might come to grief as a result.

Beiranvand’s face-to-face collision with team-mate Majid Hosseini, which occurred as he came for a cross during the England match, cost him a broken nose and a concussion and may have been the most-replayed incident of the first round of games.

While that painful experience cost him a World Cup appearance against Wales, it had not dented his readiness to put bodies – his own and others – on the line. This time at least he was dealing out the damage rather than sustaining it.

He flung himself at the ball, too late to stop the arriving Christian Pulisic hooking it past him into the net, but just in time to smash his trailing knee into Pulisic’s groin.

Footballers regularly describe scoring a goal as the greatest feeling in life. Imagine, then, how good it must feel to score a goal that could win for your country a huge World Cup game that would be remembered for decades.

It’s hard for most of us to conceive of the great burst of euphoria that electrified the brain and body of Pulisic in that moment. And yet there he lay, slumped on the spot where he had fallen, plainly paralysed with agony.

Here we had evidence that however incredible it feels to score a crucial goal in the World Cup, it’s not quite as good as a hard knee in the groin is bad. For a couple of minutes it looked as though Pulisic would be unable to continue, as he underwent extensive treatment in the goalmouth. The US medical staff helped him off the pitch and the game went on. Supported by the physios, Pulisic struggled to his feet and, blinking away the tears, peered down his shorts to inspect the damage.

Whatever he saw seemed to give him renewed courage. He limped gingerly around the corner of the pitch, then, in a stirring display of indomitability, forced himself into a jog. Christian Pulisic was going to run this off.

Or not, as it turned out, because he did not re-emerge after half-time. Without the sparky runs of Pulisic, and now with a lead to protect, the American approach after half-time became more cautious.

Now one mistake could ruin everything, and in the 65th minute right-back Antonee Robinson almost made that mistake, losing the ball to Ali Gholizadeh, who set up Saman Ghoddos with a chance 12 yards out – but the Iranian substitute wafted the ball high and wide.

Then Weston McKennie departed with an apparent injury and now the US had lost two of their best players. The starting XI had included no MLS-based players, but there were three among the five substitutes, and the poise of the first half had soon deserted them.

But Iran, by now too desperate to muster any poise of their own, battered at the door in vain, and ultimately ran out of time.

The Americans are through and Pulisic has a goal to tell his grandchildren about, even if he might never be able to remember the moment without wincing.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer