America’s victory over Iran ends a tense week

DOHA, Qatar – On Monday, US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter was asked to be, among other things, an economist, customs agent, military policy expert and UN ambassador.

On Tuesday, he finally got to be what he most wanted: a coach who has taken his team to the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

After the United States held off Iran 1-0 at Al Thumama Stadium, Berhalter embraced his coaching staff in a group bear hug in the technical area, their arms wrapped tightly around each other’s shoulders as they jumped up and down. He then ran onto the field to bask in the celebration with his players and the raucous contingent of American fans behind the goal.

Four years after taking over a program in disarray, Berhalter had carried the USA through what is by some measure the biggest victory of his career.

“It’s the first time in 92 years that we’ve had two shutouts in a World Cup,” Berhalter said later, his face red. “So the boys are doing something right.”

It was a remarkable 24 hours for Berhalter, the type of incredible juxtaposition that can only exist in international soccer — and only with a match like the one the United States had against Iran, a country whose history, both alone and with the United States, is deep and complicated. and messy.

It is the story that has driven the construction. The U.S. Soccer Association played no small part in the pre-match discomfort when, unbeknownst to Berhalter or his players, it posted images to social media showing Iran’s flag without the Islamic Republic’s logo in an attempt to show support for women in Iran. who fight for the most basic human rights.

Well-intentioned as it might have been, it nonetheless created a firestorm, and Berhalter was left to navigate it. At his news conference on Monday, Iranian reporters asked him tough questions, asking him to explain why inflation could contribute to the unpopularity of his team at home or to justify the different visa requirements the United States has for Iranians who might want to travel there. There was a question about US warships in the region.

It was somehow bizarre, but Berhalter – to his credit – handled it deftly. He apologized for any offense the social media post may have caused, while expressing support for those fighting for a better life. He also did his best to push the focus back to football. In many ways, this game was doomsday for Berhalter and his players at the end of a four-year resurrection, and Berhalter had to do what he could to make sure his players were ready for it.

In short, they were. Castigating Berhalter is a bit of a cottage industry in circles of those who follow the American team closely – such is life as an international manager in reality – but this much is certain: Berhalter has won a Gold Cup and a Nations League. He has beaten Mexico three times (including in World Cup qualifying). He has overseen a complete overhaul of young and talented international players, made difficult – and in some cases fantastic – choices about who to take to Qatar and has now led that team to the last 16 of the World Cup.

Is he perfect? He is not. There is still fair criticism of his tactics or substitution patterns, but striker Joshua Sargent was recalled and put in a strong performance against Iran, as did defender Cameron Carter-Vickers (who came on for Walker Zimmerman). Tim Ream, a surprisingly late addition to the roster just before the World Cup, was also strong in defence. As stressful as it may have been, the U.S. was able to see its lead late.

Even more, Berhalter motivated his players and pushed them to meet the moment. Recalling earlier this week how he had watched the USA lose to Iran in the infamous 1998 World Cup encounter, Berhalter highlighted how what stood out to him was the disparity in emotional levels on the pitch. The Iranians wanted the game so badly, Berhalter said, and it was clear the Americans had nowhere near the same type of feeling.

On Tuesday it wasn’t a problem. Not even close. Of course there was fire. But also a confidence that the moment was not too great.

“There was a calm about the team,” Ream said. “No one was breathing heavily or had panic in their eyes.”

It helped that the tactics were also in place. Christian Pulisic’s goal was the result of a sequence that Ream said Berhalter and the coaches had specifically emphasized in their scouting, a move of the play far to the side to expose the back post for Pulisic to attack. The goal was, as Ream said, “perfect, perfect, perfect,” except for Pulisic’s collision with the Iranian goalkeeper that sent Pulisic to hospital mid-match for an abdominal scan.

Game

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Steve Nicol and Craig Burley preview USA’s Round of 16 match against Holland at the World Cup.

If Pulisic can’t play against the Netherlands on Saturday (or is limited), it will be another bump for Berhalter to navigate. He has options – Giovanni Reyna still hasn’t featured much and Brenden Aaronson is a lively replacement – but regardless, motivation for the group will be crucial again.

This is what Berhalter wants. He has never been without the efforts of his mission. He has said time and time again that this team’s goal is to change the perception of American football around the world. It helped the game against England. So did Tuesday.

Now comes another opportunity. Another chance. Berhalter will endure the arrows; all coaches do. He will take the criticism. All he cares about is getting his players to see what he sees, to know what he knows: That this team can do anything. On Tuesday, after the hugs and shouts and the video call to the hospital so Pulisic could join in on the fun, Berhalter came to another, more traditional news conference and reflected on what pleased him most about the night.

“We believed in ourselves,” he said. “We believed in what we were doing.”

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