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KHOR, Qatar – In football there are draws that feel like wins and draws that feel like losses. The United States has experienced one each in the group stage of this World Cup.
Missing a late lead against Wales in Monday’s 1-1 opener left a bitter taste, but Friday’s 0-0 draw with mighty England was cause for celebration.
However, another draw in the final matchday of Group B on Tuesday would not bode well. The United States (two points) must beat Iran (three points) to finish in the top two and advance to the round of 16. This World Cup adventure ends with a defeat or a draw.
World Cup tiebreaks and promotion scenarios explained
As the 32-team competition began, dropping out of the group was the cusp of modest success after missing out on the 2018 tournament and filling the roster with young players. Now the Americans are able to complete their first mission.
“We’re not going to think about it,” said defender Tim Ream. “We’re winning, we’re in.”
England (four points) lead the group and would win first place with a win over Wales (one). A draw would also ensure passage to the next phase. The only reason the Three Lions wouldn’t finish first or second was if they lost to the Dragons by an unequal result and squandered their high goal difference (the first tiebreaker).
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However, the result of England vs. Wales will not affect the US cause. It’s three points or bust.
“Now it’s clear,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter. “Any time you’re at a World Cup and you go into the final group game to decide your fate, that’s a pretty good thing.”
The last time the United States found itself in such a World Cup imbalance was in South Africa 2010. This season also started with two draws, including one against England. The Americans, who needed three points against Algeria in the group final, were on the verge of being eliminated when Landon Donovan scored one of the most famous goals in US soccer history – a desperate injury-time team surge that sparked wild celebrations on the Pretoria pitch and back after home.
From the archives: Landon Donovan’s goal means the Americans are progressing
In a 2022 squad filled with players in their late teens and early 20s, this was the most frequently cited moment when asked to share their first or best World Cup memory. Donovan is now part of Fox Sports’ announcements team in Qatar.
“Hopefully not as dramatic as that goal,” said captain Tyler Adams, 23, of Tuesday’s prospects. “I don’t want to keep it for the end.”
They left it until the last game without a shred of room for error because they didn’t score. They were great defensively and only conceded a penalty. But the scoring drought that has plagued them throughout much of the nerve-wracking World Cup qualifier has solidified since the summer.
“At times we wanted to go even deeper and get the ball in front of the goal and cause them real problems,” said Berhalter on Friday. “But you know, at this level, goals aren’t easy.”
You don’t have it easy against a variety of opponents. In the past seven games, the United States have been eliminated four times and scored once – against Grenada, No. 173 in the FIFA rankings.
Another empty performance will send them home.
An ambitious first-half performance against Wales resulted in a goal from Tim Weah, brilliantly assisted by Christian Pulisic. The second half was an exchange of blows.
On Friday, the United States created more high-quality opportunities than England, a surprising development given ongoing US problems and England’s 6-2 win over Iran four days earlier. But here, too, the Americans lacked the final touch.
The Three Lions were panned for their performance. The Sun headlined: ‘US yawning’. The Daily Mail declared: ‘Boring, Boring England!’ and the Evening Standard called it a ‘reality check as England second best after USA in deflating World Cup draw’.
Berhalter didn’t call Friday’s game a great success because “you need the goal to win the game and we didn’t do that.”
“We came close a few times and put a lot of pressure on them,” he said. “And we always want to get better in this tournament and that’s our goal.”
On November 25, the soccer teams of the USA and England met in an anticipated World Cup match. Iran shocked Wales with a 2-0 win, scoring twice late in the game. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
No pun intended by Berhalter, who made his only line-up change since the Wales game by switching strikers: Haji Wright for Josh Sargent. One in 10 shots against England was on target without Pulisic’s offer off the crossbar.
“If you create 100 chances, at least one of them will go in eventually,” said midfielder Weston McKennie, who missed a golden opportunity in the first half. “The most important thing was that we created the chances and that we can be dangerous. And that will just build up.”
On Tuesday, the Americans must also keep up with the spirit of Iran. Team Melli rebounded from the disaster against England to play with high energy and unrestrained belief in a 2-0 win over 10-man Wales. Both goals came in second-half injury time, just a reward after attacking with enthusiasm all afternoon and hitting the post twice in quick succession in the second half.
The Iranians also had to deal with unrest at home and the arrest of a well-known player, Voria Ghafouri, for protesting the regime in Tehran. (He is not in the World Cup squad.)
Iran’s World Cup win sparks joy, but tensions over protests linger
Since the World Cup draw in April, the game between the United States and Iran has been portrayed not just as a sporting event but as a clash of political enemies. On Friday, Berhalter downplayed that.
“I’ve played in three different countries and trained in Sweden,” he said. “And the special thing about football is that you meet so many different people from all over the world and share a common love of football. I imagine the game will be hotly contested because both teams want to go through, not because of politics or relations in our country. We are soccer players and we will compete. They’re going to compete and that’s it.”
World Cup in Qatar
The latest: The United States drew 0-0 with England in their second World Cup game on Friday to set up a must-win group final against Iran. Read the highlights of the Group B game.
Political protest: The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement at home against the clerical leadership, and the inevitable and ongoing tensions are spilling over onto the pitch.
Highlights: Where Saudi Arabia faced Argentina on Tuesday, Brazil faced Serbia in the 73rd minute. Richarlison’s miracle cemented Brazil’s 2-0 opening win.
Perspective: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of cash are better. Read Sally Jenkins on the human rights controversy in Qatar.
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