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It feels cruel, doesn’t it?

Years and years of building, planning and obsessing all come down to a single 90-minute game against Iran. Well, I shouldn’t say a 90-minute game, given FIFA has suddenly figured out how to use a stopwatch to add up a somewhat-more-accurate amount of stoppage time at the end of games. But you get my point.

In Group B, it’s do-or-die time for the United States on Tuesday at the 2022 FIFA World Cup (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo). If the USMNT end up with anything other than a win, they’ll be leaving Qatar much earlier than they would have otherwise hoped.

The defense has largely held up over the USMNT’s first two World Cup games, a 1-1 draw with Wales and a 0-0 draw against England. The attack? Well, that’s another story. They haven’t pieced together more than a single expected goal (or a single actual goal) so far in this World Cup. So to beat Iran – a team that loves to defend deep in their own half, somehow feeding on their opponents’ frustrations – the United States are going to need something in the attack.

Let’s explore how the US can break through Iran by examining who could end up on the scoresheet on Tuesday at Al Thumama Stadium.

I’m going to share a soccer idea with you I’ve found to be true over the years: It’s easier to win games when your most talented players play like your most talented players. Crazy, right?

Christian Pulisic is certainly one of the USMNT’s most talented players. He’s a dribbling whizz who can drop his shoulder, leave a group of opposing defenders in the dust and break into a useful attacking space. Against Iran, the United States will need players who can skate past a line of players. They’ll need Pulisic’s ball progression.

But they’ll also need his attacking spark in the box. Over the years, Pulisic has shown an ability to create his own shot and to crash the box as an auxiliary runner. He’s shown those things in spurts, certainly, but he has shown them. There’s no doubt in my mind Pulisic is better in a track meet than he is when it comes to picking locks in a game filled with one-way traffic, though his skill is undeniable.

If the Chelsea star is playing catch and release with the ball on the left wing, making quick decisions and keeping defenders off balance… the face of the program will have his chance to make American soccer history.

As it stands, Tim Weah will be an answer to a trivia question at some point in the future. Right now, he’s the only US player to score a goal at the 2022 World Cup. Frankly, the country won’t care if he’s still the only US player to score a goal at the 2022 World Cup after Tuesday, so long as he adds at least one more to his tally.

He can, though. That’s the best thing about Weah. If you blink, Weah has probably chopped his way past you. If you lose focus for a second, Weah has probably already run in behind your defensive line. And if you aren’t careful, Weah will put the ball in the back of your net.

When you comb through Weah’s boxscore stats over the last several years at Lille, nothing really stands out. He hasn’t played more than 1,700 minutes or scored more than three goals in any of the last four seasons in France’s Ligue 1. But don’t let those pedestrian numbers fool you: Weah comes to life with the USMNT (mostly because he actually gets on the field in his best position). With his speed, quickness, and strong right foot, Weah will exploit space behind Iran’s backline, get in the box and try to cause problems.

He had success exploiting space behind Wales’ backline in the USMNT’s first game of the tournament. In this image, you can see how Gregg Berhalter kept Sergiño Dest deeper on the right side so Weah could have free reign on the wing.

Iran won’t let themselves get stretched in very many moments like Wales did on Weah’s goal, but if they are stretched…that’s when Weah makes his money.

He’s earned a starting spot for the United States – now let’s see if he can repeat his feat against Wales and get on the scoresheet again.

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Weston McKennie
Midfielder · USA

Say it with me now: Weston McKennie’s best skill is his ability to crash the box. 

Weston McKennie’s best skill is his ability to crash the box.

Oh, wow, you actually went and said it with me. That was nice. Thank you.

Seriously, though, McKennie has made his money over the last few years by being an aerially dominant force in the final third. Juventus don’t like to build through him in possession, but they will let McKennie roam some in the final third to serve as a release valve against a high-pressing team. When McKennie is positioned high up the field, he’ll also make smart, late-arriving runs into the box.

With his occasional contributions on the ball, his smart running and his aerial ability, McKennie is a difficult player for opposing defenses to handle. Now, McKennie doesn’t create his own shots. Instead, he relies on other players to feed him, which means the service needs to be right for McKennie to maximize his impact on Tuesday’s game.

But if the passes are hitting, McKennie could give the United States a boost with his movement in the box. He’ll also be carrying boatloads of confidence after a swaggering, meet-the-moment performance in the England draw.

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Gio Reyna
Forward · USA

Well, we’ve arrived at the weirdest, most intriguing storyline for the United States: The “Gregg Berhalter said one thing, Gio Reyna said the exact opposite thing and now no one seems to know what’s going on” saga.

Is Reyna fully fit? He says so. Is he injured? Berhalter says so.

Regardless, Reyna played a few minutes off the bench against England – 12 minutes, to be exact, when counting stoppage time. His cameo appearance seems like a good sign ahead of the most important game the USMNT have played in a really, really long time.

Reyna is so talented and so unique in the USMNT’s player pool. He’s strong enough to push forward, even with a defender on his back, and he’s skillful enough to avoid the rest of the defenders along the way. Because Reyna is so comfortable under pressure and he’s such a capable chance creator, he’s a true asset when it comes to breaking down a low block. According to FBref, he’s in the 85th percentile in xG assisted among Bundesliga attacking midfielders over the last year.

At just 20 years old, Reyna has a long way to go. And he hasn’t been healthy for the last couple of years. But he’s a unicorn, and the USMNT don’t have another player like him. If Reyna plays a significant number of minutes on Tuesday, expect him to give the US a boost in the attack.

No. 9 Mystery Box

Look, we don’t know who is going to start up top for the USMNT on Tuesday. Whoever starts, though, will be put in positions to score a goal against Iran.

With quality play from the wingers and set-piece opportunities, one of Jesús Ferreira (hasn't played yet!), Josh Sargent (started vs. Wales) and Haji Wright (started vs. England) will have their chance to propel their team into the knockout rounds.

All three players are different – Ferreira likes to drop, Sargent likes to scrap and Wright likes to slip in behind. But the goal for those three players is the same: score. Or, at least help their team score.