USMNT lineup

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar – Before a question could be posed, Tim Ream asked for a moment.

“Can I say something first?” said the US men’s national team’s veteran defender at the start of Sunday evening's media availability at their Al-Gharafa training base. “Welcome to the bun brothers' press conference.”

Ream was sitting on the dais next to his center-back partner and fellow man-bun devotee Walker Zimmerman, you see. And while it didn’t quite bring the house down in a room of journalists still processing the breaking news of U.S. Soccer’s controversial use of an altered Iranian flag on some social media posts ahead of the two nations’ enormous do-or-die World Cup match on Tuesday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo), the brief moment of levity was appreciated.

Growing tensions

From the moment both nations were drawn together in Group B, this was always going to be a torrid occasion, full of hot blood, contentious history and geopolitical intrigue. Then the results in the first two rounds of group play set the two sides up as head-to-head rivals for what is likely (but not guaranteed) to be the second-place spot behind England, and the ticket to the Round of 16 that grants.

That’s all been dialed up to 11, though, by the events of the past few days. From Jurgen Klinsmann’s remarks about Iranians’ perceived gamesmanship to the flag posts to Monday’s startlingly confrontational press conference, it’s now unlike anything this team has experienced before.

“It is unique. It is something different,” acknowledged Ream. “We're all human, we understand that there are things going on that are out of our control. And so that's where we find ourselves. Again, we understand and empathize with the Iranian people. And at the end of the day, we are still having to focus on what is our job, what we've been preparing to do, what we've been focused on for many, many years.

“We know that this game isn't played in a bubble. There are a lot of things that happen around the world and people want our opinions, but our opinion is that we want to play the game. And the game is for everyone.”

Stick to sports?

US players and coaches weren’t consulted about the posts with the altered flag, which was intended as a gesture of solidarity to the Iranian human-rights demonstrators mounting passionate street protests since September. Sparked by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini while she was being detained by morality police for allegedly failing to properly cover her hair, per the restrictions of the nation’s fundamentalist Islamic government, they’ve been met with violent reprisals and thousands of arrests, with hundreds of deaths and thousands of detainments reported.

But this USMNT group has stood up for marginalized people repeatedly, dating back to their “Be the Change” motto, launched in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minnesota in 2020 and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests that followed.

That leaves these players walking a tricky tightrope.

“We're huge supporters of women's rights,” said Zimmerman. “We didn't know anything about the post, but we are supporters of women's rights. We always have been. We're focused a lot on Tuesday from the sporting side as well, so you [a reporter] mentioned it's a distraction. I think this is such a focused group on the task at hand. But at the same time we empathize, and we are firm believers in women's rights and support them.”

USMNT captain Tyler Adams reiterated that stance under intense scrutiny from Iranian media in Monday’s matchday-1 press conference.

“Listen, we support Iran's people and Iran's team,” said the New York Red Bulls homegrown product. “That being said, we're laser-focused on this match, as they are as well. We know how important this is, our progress of our team, and what we want to do to prove to our country how hard we've been working. And we know they [Iran] want to do exactly the same.”

Zimmerman was also asked about the topic that sparked the brouhaha around Klinsmann, who suggested on a BBC broadcast it was Iran’s “culture” to engage in underhanded tactics and “work the referees” in the wake of their nerve-jangling 2-0 win over Wales.

“You come up against gamesmanship and different styles in Concacaf all the time,” said the Nashville SC linchpin. “So you look at every single team in the World Cup, they all have a different kind of style, different ways of gamesmanship. And that is just the nature of this sport. That's the nature of our game. And it's not something that you can overly prepare for. But it's an understanding that it's going to happen, and you just have to keep your cool and not let it bother you.”

The big picture

There was something ironic about members of the Iranian media lashing out against what they called “psychological warfare” on their team on the part of Klinsmann, U.S. Soccer and the Western media at large, in the process creating a firestorm that risks creating a very similar effect on the USMNT. Berhalter has repeatedly praised his young group’s composure and dedication, and did so again on Monday.

“What I see from the group is this tremendous amount of focus. There's no real distractions,” Berhalter said. “I know there's a lot going on here. But the group is focused on how do we get a win. It’s been a pleasure working with this group for the last four years, there's been a lot of growth within this group. And tomorrow's a great challenge for this group, and I'm really excited to see how we respond to that.”

It’s not exactly fair to judge an entire World Cup cycle and managerial tenure by one game. Yet Berhalter recognizes that the stakes of this tournament, and Tuesday’s matchup specifically, mean the outcome will have an outsized effect on how he and his time in charge of the national team are viewed.

Some 20 million viewers across the United States tuned in to the Yanks’ 0-0 draw with England on Friday, and another big turnout is expected for the Iran match. For many, it will centrally influence their judgment of Berhalter’s work since he took the post in December 2018.

“That's our business,” said the coach. “Our job, we said that this team is going to be judged on what we do at the World Cup. So that's fine. We'll deal with it. We're focused on winning tomorrow, a good game tomorrow, and keep going in this tournament.”