AL THUMAMA, Qatar – The star attacker sacrificing his body to score the decisive goal. A brave rearguard defense to hold the narrow lead under heavy pressure. A captain covering seemingly every blade of grass on the pitch, totaling more than eight miles of running over 90-plus minutes.
There was the euphoria of Christian Pulisic’s game-winner, which he had little opportunity to enjoy thanks to a painful blow he sustained to his, shall we say, lower abdomen, on the play. And the grafting the group had to endure when a second goal did not materialize, necessitating a defensive shell via a 5-4-1 formation for the game’s final stages to post their second clean sheet of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
“It took a lot of suffering to get that win,” said midfielder Yunus Musah after the must-win, geopolitically-tense clash at Al Thumama Stadium. “But as you’ve seen in this competition, it's not easy to win any game, man. So yes, it was just such a relief. And yeah, tonight I’m going to obviously sleep well.
“So we have to really be proud of ourselves to be able to achieve this in such a tough group.”
The sum total was a profoundly inspiring occasion that has them – and perhaps some of their fans back in the States, too – dreaming big ahead of Saturday’s Round of 16 meeting with the Netherlands, winners of Group A (10 am ET | FOX, Telemundo).
“I’m sure a bunch of people are back home watching,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter when asked by a British journalist whether this was the kind of performance that could make the nation fall in love with his team. “This team, we talked, the US reporters will talk to you about defining this group and I think it starts to take shape based on these performances.
“You see how resilient this group is, you see how unified this group is, you see what type of energy and output they put into every single game, and along the way there’s some pretty good soccer. That’s the American spirit, the way this group plays, and I think people will appreciate that, especially back home.”
Berhalter has framed the World Cup as two tournaments in one: First, the group stage must be navigated and survived, and then the elimination phase poses a different set of challenges and opportunities.
“Coming into the tournament, we had two goals,” the manager said. “The first was the advance through the group-stage tournament and then to the knockout tournament. And from here, anything can happen. All we need to do is play one game at a time. There’s no need to even project how far this team can go, because the next match is against Holland and that’s our main focus.”
The USMNT maintained that the vaunted Dutch will be respected, but not feared.
“The conversation in the locker room is, hey, we're excited to win. But we have so much more from this group, so much more expectation from this team,” said Walker Zimmerman, who came off the bench when the US shifted to a five-man backline and made a game-high eight clearances in just eight minutes plus nine minutes of added time.
“The whole environment, we said from the very beginning, we’re unpacked – we're here till December 19 in our head. And we want to make that a reality.”
His fellow center back Tim Ream was resolutely steady, as he has been throughout the group stage, even paired with Cameron Carter-Vickers for the first time ever. Ream claimed to enjoy the late bunkering.
“Yeah, of course. I think you have to, you have to enjoy that adversity,” he said. “You have to enjoy the pressure that comes with a team throwing everything at you. And if you don't enjoy it and you start panicking, then bad things happen. I looked around and saw 11 calm guys on the field, doing everything they could, putting their bodies on the line to make sure that result stuck. And what a fantastic result it is.”
The US hope bigger accomplishments await in Qatar now the knockouts have arrived.
"I always say it's us against the world,” winger Tim Weah told FOX’s Jenny Taft. “Because no one believed that the US could play good football. We're just here trying to show the world."