On the one hand, the match at Al Bayt Stadium lived up to — and maybe even exceeded — the billing in just about every way. The Americans outplayed one of the World Cup favorites in front of a monster eight-figure audience back home.
Even without a goal, die-hard and casual fans alike could see with their own eyes how far the program has come since the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup a little more than five years ago.
“We felt like we dominated the game,” all-action midfielder Weston McKennie told reporters afterward. “There’s a lot of people that obviously thought we were gonna get blown out … but for us, we didn’t feel like an underdog at all.”
“We had a lot of chances and even could’ve won the game,” Christian Pulisic added.
“I would have definitely preferred three points,” U.S. captain Tyler Adams said.
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All of this is true. Despite not winning or scoring a goal, Friday’s performance was the best for the U.S. men on the biggest stage in two decades, since the 2002 squad beat Portugal and Mexico and gave eventual runner-up Germany everything they could handle in a 1-0 quarterfinal loss that could’ve been a victory but for a controversial non-call.
It was exactly the sort of game U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter — who as a defender on that pre-VAR 2002 team that was denied a goal by the arm of a German defender — envisioned when he took the helm of the national team four years ago with the aim of not just returning to the biggest event in sports, but also “changing the way the world views American soccer.”
“I talked before the World Cup about how seriously the team, the staff, is taking this responsibility to gain momentum for the sport in America,” Berhalter said after his side kept a clean sheet against a European foe at the tournament for the first time since stunning England 1-0 in 1950. “We’re not done.”
Which brings us to the second way of looking at Friday’s game.
Combined with the disappointing 1-1 draw with Wales that opened the Americans’ stay at Qatar 2022, the U.S. has just two points from two games. It finds itself needing to win Tuesday’s group finale against Iran (2 p.m. ET, FOX and the FOX Sports app), which topped the Welsh earlier Friday in dramatic fashion to advance. A tie won’t be enough.
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One could argue that it’s a great spot for the U.S. to be in. Berhalter sure did. “Anytime you’re in a World Cup and you get to go into the last group game controlling your destiny, that’s a pretty good thing,” he said.
Yet as a student of soccer history, Berhalter must also know that leaving points on the table is a recipe for disaster at any World Cup. The U.S. has produced three excellent halves out of four through two games. Even the final 45 minutes against Wales wasn’t terrible; if not for a poor late challenge by center back Walker Zimmerman on Gareth Bale, the U.S. would have four points and its place in the knockout stage would be all but secure already. The Americans have yet to concede a goal from the run of play in Qatar.
“They defended incredibly well,” England manager Gareth Southgate said of the Americans.
And yet none of it will matter if the U.S. can’t beat a good Iranian side that has zero incentive to attack them. Because a draw will be enough for Team Melli to survive the first round for the first time, it’ll have the luxury of sitting back, absorbing pressure, and trying to eliminate the Americans with the same quick and efficient counterattack that was on full display against Bale & Co.
While the U.S. expended a tremendous amount of energy through its first two games, it can’t afford to let up now. Berhalter’s team also needs to figure out how to score or at the very least force opposing goalkeepers to make saves. As well as the U.S. has played at times, it has put just two shots on target through 180 minutes at this World Cup.
That’s not to suggest that it’s all gloom and doom. If the U.S. plays the way it did against England — and actually manages a couple of goals — it will have momentum heading into the round of 16 against either Ecuador, the Netherlands or Senegal.
“I think we should be proud with the performance,” Pulisic said. “But most of all, it should spark confidence, and it should give us a great feeling going into this last match that’s a must-win.”
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Just win, baby. The Americans are the favorite, and they still have every opportunity to make a memorable run into December.
“We want to capture the public’s attention. We want to perform at a high level. we want to give them something to be proud of,” Berhalter said. “A night like tonight helps, but there has to be more to come.”
After the way these first two games played out, they’ll be kicking themselves if it doesn’t.
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Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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