Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Three takeaways as USA survive Iran to move on in World Cup

Doyle USA-Iran

My cardiologist would’ve recommended a second goal, but the US men’s national team needed just one on Tuesday afternoon to ease (heh) past Iran in Doha, taking years off of our lives via a 1-0 win in their final World Cup Group B game.

The three points pushed the US to second in the group behind England and set up a Round of 16 encounter with the Netherlands on Saturday.

I’ve been holding my breath for two hours and am a little woozy. And… exhale.

Ok, let’s take a look at this one, which played out in the way I think most of us would’ve expected/scripted.

Here we go:

GreggBall Gets Its Moment

The goal sequence started with an unreal ball from Matt Turner over the first level of the Iranian press – one of the only times they came upfield in the first half – and an even better touch from Tim Weah to bring it down and get it to Yunus Musah.

Iran, as is natural in that spot, started retreating. But they were retreating just to get into their shape, and in the process, the US were still advancing the ball upfield from Musah to Tyler Adams to Antonee Robinson and eventually to Weston McKennie.

This wasn’t really a transition moment, but it was a sequence in which the US, for once, had time and space in central midfield. There was no pressure on the ball, and while Adams couldn’t find a passing lane, well, McKennie could. And he could because Sergiño Dest correctly calculated the ROI of booking it up the right touchline to get into the golden zone.

Christian Pulisic's goal is the epitome of everything Gregg Berhalter said he's been trying to build for the past four years. Expert distribution from the goalkeeper, to useful, precise and unhurried midfield possession, to a flying fullback, to runners crashing the box vs. a defense disorganized by US possession.

I can't say Berhalter's made every decision I'd have made over the years (I’d definitely have gone for bully ball with an emphasis on set pieces in this game), but in general I’ve given him a lot of leash because he had a clear point of view. And when the coach has a clear point of view, that gives the players clarity of roles on the pitch.

That’s what we saw today, and that’s what we’ve seen all tournament.

The Center Back Gamble

Berhalter’s big gamble was breaking up the CB partnership that had really only given up two open-play chances through 180 minutes. What made it bigger is that Tim Ream and Cameron Carter-Vickers had never played together before, and they combined for just one start in World Cup qualifying.

It was a hell of a gamble from Berhalter, a hell of a choice.

I understand the reasoning behind it, though, for two main reasons, both of which come down to the fact that Iran are one of the most committed low-block-and-counter teams in the tournament:

  1. Carter-Vickers is faster in the open field than Walker Zimmerman. He’s more likely to run down and eliminate a counterattacking opportunity all on his own.
  1. Carter-Vickers plays for Celtic, who face packed-in defenses every week. There’s an expectation of some amount of muscle memory when it comes to facing yet another team built on the back foot.

Nashville, of course, never face anything like that.

The flip side, beyond losing the obvious chemistry between Zimmerman and Ream that was apparent through two games, is that you also lose your best (or second-best, depending upon which McKennie shows up) attacking set piece threat, and without question you lose your best set piece defender.

It’s worth mentioning that more goals have been scored via restarts in recent World Cups than from open play.

Truly, a hell of a gamble from Berhalter.

A Few Stray Thoughts

- The US built up the right side so, so much, which gave Pulisic the chance to be a runner and box-arriver more than a playmaker. This suits him better, and he deserves all the credit in the world for sacrificing his body (and maybe future generations of Pulisics) for the goal.

- Real concerns about the health of Pulisic and especially Josh Sargent for the Round of 16 match against the Netherlands. Sargent’s leg injury, in about the 75th minute, looked nasty (that said, you could see him walking around on the field after the final whistle).

- Turner’s distribution in this tournament has been amazing.

- The US’s defensive shape has changed repeatedly from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2 to, eventually, a 5-4-1. That last came deep into the second half when the US were completely out of gas.

- Zimmerman was huge in those final 20 minutes, winning header after header to clear danger out of the box. That was the story of the final phase of the game, which entered the #TacticsFreeZone as Iran searched desperately for the equalizer that would’ve sent them through.

- Transition opportunities should be this US team’s strong suit, but time after time they were unable to turn those moments into goals.

- Speaking of transition opportunities, one thing we’ve seen consistently is that when Brenden Aaronson comes on, the game opens up. He presses everywhere at all times, and while that’s useful, it often has the effect of opening the game up and costing the US control of events because the lines get stretched.

That worries me, especially with Pulisic’s availability in question, and with Gio Reyna still not fit to go.

- The other part of that loss of control was the midfield losing their legs. Except, of course, for Adams, who’s got Frankie Hejduk-levels of fitness. The kid’s had an incredible tournament – I think he earned his third straight Man of the Match (from a US perspective, anyway).

Or maybe he and Musah should split it. And the rest of the team, too, because as Berhalter said in the postgame interview, “In the first half we showed what we could do soccer-wise, and in the second half we showed what we could do determination-wise. We grind through it.”

They’re a young team, but they’re fearless, and they’re good, and they deserved to move on. They earned every bit of it.