A tie was good enough against Wales.
A tie was great against England.
A tie would be a disaster against Iran.
The stakes for Tuesday’s World Cup match against Iran couldn’t be simpler or more straightforward for the Americans: Win and advance or lose and go home.
“It adds a little bit of pressure, but for us, every single game is pressure,” said veteran U.S. defender Tim Ream. “We have to go out and just embrace the moment and enjoy it, live it and not worry about what comes after.”
A stout defense has carried the American club through its first two matches in Qatar. The U.S. has allowed just one goal — a penalty kick against Wales — through 180 minutes of play.
The strength of U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s back line and goalkeeper Matt Turner, who has stopped all five shots sent his way, gives the U.S. the opportunity to compete with any team in the world.
But here’s the kicker (no pun intended): The U.S. has yet to show much offensive firepower through two games. Aside from Tim Weah’s goal in the first half against Wales, Christian Pulisic & Co. have failed to generate enough scoring chances or to capitalize on the few they’ve had.
Iran, meanwhile, has scored two goals in each of its first two World Cup contests. After losing to England 6-2 to open the tournament, Iran bounced back with a crucial 2-0 victory over Wales.
While the U.S. needs a win, Iran could advance with just a tie so long as England takes care of business against Wales. But that match also starts at 2 p.m., so Iran won’t know which result it needs when the game begins.
Either way, the possibility of advancing with just a tie could lead Iran to play a more conservative style, not pushing the envelope and sitting back to prevent the U.S. attack.
“Make no mistake about it, this is a knockout game for both teams, so it’s going to be a high-level intensity,” Berhalter told reporters Monday. “I love what Iran‘s done so far, especially the last game. A lot of commitment, really good counterattacking, and we expect it to be a hotly contested game.”
The U.S. and Iran have history on the pitch — a history that favors the Middle East nation. Arguably one of the most humiliating losses in U.S. World Cup history, the Americans were eliminated from the 1998 tournament after losing to Iran 2-1. Prior to the loss to Trinidad and Tobago that eliminated the U.S. from 2018 World Cup qualifying, the loss to Iran was considered the worst in U.S. soccer history.
After missing the World Cup in 2018, a win over Iran would put the U.S. back in the knockout stage for its third straight tournament appearance. The U.S. lost in the Round of 16 in both 2010 and 2014.
The last time the U.S. was in a must-win game in the group stage was in 2010, when Landon Donovan scored the game-winner in stoppage time to beat Algeria.
“For us, our knockout game comes one game earlier,” Walker Zimmerman told reporters Sunday. “You look around in a lot of different teams and groups, and they’re all going into their third game, most of them, having to get a result. Whether that’s a tie or a win, there’s going to be pressure, there’s going to be a necessity. For us, that’s a win, and we have no problem with starting our knockout a little bit earlier.”