Win and you’re into the Round of 16. Lose/draw and you’re out. It’s as simple as that!
The US are coming off an impressive 0-0 draw against group favorites England, where we saw the midfield trio of Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie control the center of the park. All three were influential in keeping possession, crunching tackles, winning second balls and connecting passes against a lackluster English side.
Here is my projected starting XI for the Iran game, where the USMNT will need to recreate those levels at Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar.
After watching both matches in the group stage, there is only one question that still remains: Who will lead the line for the USMNT in the striker position?
Josh Sargent has found impactful moments through his runs and hold-up play. His ability to hold off a defender and lay it off to Christian Pulisic was key in Timo Weah’s goal vs. Wales, the opener in that 1-1 draw. Sargent’s near-post run in the first 15 minutes, when his header flashed off the near post, was encouraging but little came after it.
It was then Haji Wright’s opportunity to start against England. He didn’t have a moment or spark to provide belief he’s the eventual game-changing striker the USMNT need. There were some offense-generating actions, but I’m not fully convinced.
This brings me to my belief that Weah should be starting against Iran in the central striker position. His ability to stretch the backline and make intelligent runs will surely open space for the other attacking players to operate underneath.
We also haven’t yet seen Jesús Ferreira in this World Cup. His profile may help if Iran play as deep/compact defensively as is anticipated.
What about the right?
With Weah moving centrally, that opens up a spot for Brenden Aaronson to slide into. We’ve twice seen the Philadelphia Union product and Leeds United standout come off the bench at this World Cup, but let’s see him from the jump.
Aaronson is fully fit and will help tremendously with pressure. His constant movement will be exactly what the US needs against an Iran team who defends with numbers while also committing players forward in transition.
Gio Reyna got his first World Cup minutes as a late substitute against England. That is a big bonus for the young, talented midfielder.
Reyna’s creativity and technical qualities can be exactly what is needed to find solutions against a resilient Iranian side. I assume Gio Reyna is still not quite up to 100% fitness, thus making him the first option off the bench to change the game for the US.
In both of their World Cup matches so far, Iran have looked susceptible on crosses. From the run of play, Iran’s outside backs pinch inside, leaving loads of space on the flanks for combinations. And off dead balls, they’ve struggled runners in the box. Set pieces are a must.
England’s Harry Maguire got his head on a corner kick that resulted in the ball smacking the crossbar. Then the Three Lions’ first goal came off a cross from left back Luke Shaw finding deep-lying midfielder Jude Bellingham making a run into the box.
Wales also had an early opportunity in the 12th minute of play when striker Kieffer Moore got his foot to a cross at the near post that he directed right into the goalkeeper.
The USMNT must make their mark on set pieces, as well as from the flanks. Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest will need to focus on providing accurate, precise service because they will have space to run into. And with Christian Pulisic’s set pieces, those like McKennie and Walker Zimmerman are great targets. The Chelsea star’s accuracy and pace of cross (especially from corner kicks) were improved against England.
The center-back pairing of Zimmerman and Tim Ream worked very well against English Premier League stars Harry Kane, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling. Zimmerman deferred to Ream when building out of the back and usually opted for the easy pass. Their ability to drop and cover, in addition to challenging aerial duels, set the tone.
Against Iran, the movement of strikers Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi will be no easy task. Azmoun makes darting runs in behind and Taremi takes up positions underneath. Communication will need to be as strong as it was in their match against England.
Iran showed they can successfully press, so look for them to force the US to have the ball at Zimmerman’s feet. How the group reacts to this pressure could be the deciding factor in this game.
Can they get through?
If the US are to progress into the knockout rounds, they will need to improve their chance creation and execution in front of goal when that opportunity presents itself.
I’ve never been more confident in this group after these last two matches. This is the match we’ve all been waiting for and it’s up to them to deliver.
Now, a Round of 16 game against somebody from Group A is there for the taking.