National Writer: Charles Boehm

Win or go home: USMNT path to World Cup knockouts runs through Iran

USA flag players

AL KHOR, Qatar – As brave as their performance was in Friday’s 0-0 stalemate with England, in the cold calculations of World Cup standings and advancement scenarios, that result doesn’t count all that much towards the US men’s national team’s mission of advancing to the knockout stage out of Group B.

Thanks to Iran’s 2-0 injury-time win over Wales earlier in the day, the Yanks still must defeat Team Melli at Al-Thumama Stadium on Tuesday night (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) if they are to reach the Round of 16. It’s ‘win and you’re in,’ and it would’ve been much the same if they had lost to the Three Lions, too.

Yet confidence and momentum are precious commodities at tournaments like this, and outplaying the Euro 2020 runners-up is a pretty decent prelude to Tuesday’s test.

“There's a lot of people that obviously thought we were going to get blown out,” said Weston McKennie after the scoreless draw with England. “We went into this game [to] the outside world obvious underdogs. But for us, we didn't feel like an underdog at all. Because we know our capabilities, we know what we can do. We know what talents and fight and spirit we have. So I think we're not really afraid of playing against top-tier teams.”

Iran will pose a different kind of test – a skilled, organized side, and even if they boast fewer world-class players than England, the heart-stopping pressure of the occasion could well be an upgrade on Friday’s clash, especially considering how difficult the Yanks have found it to score at this tournament.

“Most importantly, the belief of the group,” said coach Gregg Berhalter postgame, “that never wavered. What I saw in pregame was a team that was extremely focused on getting a result tonight, and I'm glad we did so. So in the end, it sets up our first knockout game in the World Cup, basically. Win or we're out of the World Cup, and that's going to be a focus of ours.”

Iran hold an advantage, meaning a draw would ensure they stay ahead of the USMNT in the table. What was already guaranteed to be a matchup dripping with emotional intensity thanks to the two nations’ troubled, intertwined geopolitical history has taken on extra weight as fierce, women-led protests against the conservative Islamist government have been met with violent repression.

That’s cast a long shadow over the national team at this tournament, with some players electing not to sing the national anthem before matches and many fans in the stands booing and whistling it. That said, with a large expatriate population living overseas and Tehran just a two-hour flight from Doha, Team Melli have been well-supported at this World Cup and that is likely to continue against the United States.

But at least there will be no need for scoreboard-watching or number-crunching. Win or go home.

“We know what we have to do. It's in our hands now,” said striker Josh Sargent, who started vs. Wales and logged an assist on Tim Weah’s goal before playing a substitute’s role vs. England. “We have to come prepared and be ready for a fight, because we know that they're going to come out flying as well.”

Said Berhalter: “It's clear now.”