Christian Pulisic’s heroic winner punches USMNT’s ticket to Round of 16 of 2022 World Cup

Christian Pulisic USMNT Iran World Cup
Christian Pulisic of the United States scores his side’s opening goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

They did just enough.

Christian Pulisic’s 38th-minute goal lifted the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) to the Round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup by defeating Iran 1-0 on Tuesday, punching its ticket to a knockout-stage matchup with Group A winners Netherlands on Saturday.

It might be without Pulisic and striker Josh Sargent. The former suffered an abdominal injury on his goal while Sargent went down with an ankle injury in the second half. 

A win was the only way the Americans could have moved on, entering the final day of group play in third place behind England — which clinched first place in Group B with a victory over Wales — while Iran needed anything but a loss.

“Proud,” USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter told FOX Sports. “The first half we showed what we could do soccer-wise… Second half we showed what we could do determination-wise… We’re undefeated heading into the second round.”

Needless to say, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the United States exhibited much more attacking fortitude compared to its first two matches against Wales and England. 

Play was more direct, more numbers were pushed toward the box. 

Five were waiting for an Antonee Robinson cross that ultimately fell to Yunus Musah in the ninth minute that sailed over the crossbar.

Pulisic managed to win a contested header in the box two minutes later in the 11th, but his attempt aimed at the opposite left post was too close to the hands of Iranian keeper Ali Beiranvand.

It became abundantly clear within the first quarter of an hour that the Americans’ best avenue of attack was down the wing — the compact Iranians allowing ample space out wide for the likes of the wing backs Sergino Dest and Robinson to work into. 

Pulisic played into Sargent at the top of the Iranian box in the 28th minute, prompting the Norwich City striker to have a go. The shot was deflected and floated to Tim Weah in the box, but the winger opted to head the ball into the grateful arms of Beiranvand rather than try for a more difficult volley that would have troubled the Iranian keeper much more. 

Sargent’s solid hold-up play off a Dest cross in the 33rd minute allowed him to pull it back to Weah from the right goal line, but Weah once again couldn’t take advantage as he skied it over the bar.

Down the wing, they continued to exploit and it finally paid off in the 38th minute. A long ball over the top for a wide-open Dest at the right of the box prompted a first-time header across the face of goal where a bounding Pulisic was there to finish and put the Americans in front. 

He paid the price as — while falling — he collided with Beiranvand and remained down for three minutes while being attended to. He slowly limped off with help, before heroically trying to get back in for the final 11 minutes before the break. 

But his day would finish at halftime as he was subbed off for Brenden Aaronson.

“I’ve been saying all along, it’s a wonderful thing when one of your best players is one of your hardest-working,” Berhalter said.

Iran began its push to try and find an equalizer and with it, opened the possibility of American counter-attacks. They nearly found a second in the 45th minute when Sargent and Weah led a break with Pulisic hovering behind. But the leading pair tried to be a bit too fancy — Sargent feeding Weah before the latter attempted a backheel return while Pulisic waited wide open. It never got to him.

Weah saw a cheeky finish with the outside of his foot from a tough angle after being played through alone by Weston McKennie wiped away in the sixth minute of first-half stoppage time, but he was offside by millimeters. 

Iran’s push yielded a dangerous chance in the 52nd minute when a bouncing cross found the head of Saman Ghoddos, but contention from the American defense forced the Middle Eastern side’s first shot attempt of the game high over the bar. 

Ghoddos curled a one-time effort off a low cross that fell his way in the 65th minute and it had US keeper Matt Turner rooted to his spot, but it blazed wide. 

It prompted the US to switch to a more defensive formation, subbing off Weah for center-back Walker Zimmerman to put five defenders on the back line at the 81st-minute mark.

Iran still worked out a golden chance in the 93rd minute off a free kick allowed by Musah on the left flank as Morteza Pouraliganji’s diving header rolled a foot wide of the left post. 

In the 99th minute, one final desperate long ball put American hearts in their throats as Mehdi Taremi nearly poked the ball through Turner’s legs and home. Instead, the Iranian forward tried to sell a penalty while diving and didn’t get all of the ball — so it slowly rolled with not enough juice toward the goal line and was able to be cleared by the Americans, who punched their ticket to the Round of 16. 

“This new injury time, counting every second, it’s stressful,” Berhalter joked. “I think I have less hair on my head now.”

Weston McKennie USMNT
United States’ Weston McKennie (8) celebrates after teammate Christian Pulisic scoring a goal during the World Cup group B soccer match between Iran and the United States at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

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