Christian Pulisic nearly captured the entire story of the United States’ win-or-go-home match against Iran on Tuesday in the second minute, when he took off on a dangerous-looking run forward that came to nothing. But after 37 minutes, seven shots and five chances that generated 0.42 expected goals but no actual goals (while allowing none, none and 0.00 to Iran1), Pulisic truly exemplified America’s effort in this match: He put his body on the line to score the goal that would knock Iran out of the World Cup – and send the U.S. to the knockout round.
Going into the match, our World Cup Predictions model gave the Americans only a 38 percent chance of getting the three points they needed to advance. Iran only needed a draw, so the U.S. was already up against the inertia of a tie game. Fans had plenty of doubts when the starting lineup was announced, and head coach Gregg Berhalter had again left creative attackers Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna on the bench (you could have checked out the hashtag #FreeGio if you didn’t mind some NSFW venting about Berhalter’s player selection in this tournament).
But Berhalter’s defensive call was even more surprising: He replaced center back Walker Zimmerman with Cameron Carter-Vickers, pairing him with Tim Ream for the first time ever. It proved to be the right move: Carter-Vickers’s athleticism allowed him to come up and feed the ball to players like dangerous right-back Sergiño Dest, while also dropping back and helping to smother Iran’s few potential offensive opportunities. The U.S. defense didn’t allow Iran a shot until the 52nd minute, and would go on to allow only two in the regulation 90 minutes.
Dest continued his outstanding tournament, racing up from his fullback spot to complete 16 passes in the attacking third, third-most on the team. According to Opta Stats, Dest completed his first 26 passes – and the 26th was a tremendous headed assist on Pulisic’s goal. The dynamic duo of Dest and Pulisic now rank among the tournament’s leaders in chance creation and finishing, respectively, as we can see in these charts tracking their percentile ranks among all players in the tournament in various metrics:
The goal came at a cost: Pulisic collided with Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beyranvand, taking a knee to his midsection. Pulisic was on the ground for several minutes, and out of the match for several minutes more. He finished the first half in obvious pain, and at halftime he was taken out of the match – and to the hospital. His celebratory social media post from a gurney insisted the abdominal injury wouldn’t keep him out of Saturday’s round of 16 game, but Americans around the world began a collective 55-minute flop sweat – including the ones on the field.
When the nine announced minutes of second-half stoppage time began, Iran had only created 0.25 expected goals on two chances. USMNT fans were treated to an unusual sight: American players wasting time to close out a win as favorites, while the scrappy underdogs nipped at their heels (and legs, and jerseys). But as the U.S. dropped back to defend its slim lead, Iran turned up the pressure, ultimately beating U.S. keeper Matt Turner for a heart-stopping trickler toward goal:
But Zimmerman’s clearance preserved the lead, and the win, and an ongoing place in the tournament for the U.S. in what proved to be its best game of the World Cup so far. With an edge of plus-0.29 expected goals, this was the Americans’ first positive expected-differential game of the tournament, and their fourth-best game at the World Cup period since 1990. (Narrowly trailing the Stars and Stripes’ infamous loss to Iran in 1998, ironically enough.)
“The first half we showed what we could do soccer-wise,” Berhalter told Fox Sports after the match. “The second half we showed what we could do determination-wise.”
Pulisic might not have been the U.S.’s best player on the field Tuesday, or in this tournament. Who knows how well, or even how much, he’ll be able to play on Saturday. Berhalter might even be forced to #FreeGio as his young squad faces an even tougher test against the Netherlands. But in a must-win contest, he set up his players to go all-out to do just that – and the effort from Pulisic and company got the job done.
Check out our latest World Cup predictions.