DOHA, Qatar — The job for the United States soccer team was simple, really: Win.
The stakes and the stage and the politics all made things harder going in to their game against Iran on Tuesday night at the World Cup. The own goal by their federation’s social media team, the Iranians’ great umbrage at the perceived insult to their flag, the chatter and the threats and the intrigue all added to the spice of the matchup. But the task, at its heart, left no room for nuance at all: If United States wanted to keep playing in this tournament, it had to beat Iran. And so it did.
The price of victory may be a high one: Christian Pulisic, perhaps the Americans’ brightest star and the scorer of its only goal in a 1-0 victory, was forced from the game at halftime with an abdominal injury sustained when he crashed hard into Iran’s goalkeeper finishing his goal. He was taken to the hospital for scans, team officials said, and Coach Gregg Berhalter said he had appeared “in good spirits” in a celebratory video call with his teammates after the game.
Pulisic’s status for the next round, a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, was unclear as the game ended. But that will be a question for tomorrow. The United States, thanks to its victory, now has one.
It will be joined in the knockouts by England, a 3-0 winner over Wales on Tuesday in a different sort of political matchup in a taut group that wasn’t decided until the final whistle blew, and sent the Americans on, and the Iranians out.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
Where is it being held? This year’s host is Qatar, which in 2010 beat the United States and Japan to win the right to hold the tournament. Whether that was an honest competition remains in dispute.
When is it? The tournament opened on Nov. 20, when Qatar played Ecuador. Over the two weeks that follow, four games will be played on most days. The tournament ends with the final on Dec. 18.
Is a winter World Cup normal? No. The World Cup usually takes place in July. But in 2015, FIFA concluded that the summer temperatures in Qatar might have unpleasant consequences and agreed to move the tournament to the relatively bearable months of November and December.
How many teams are competing? Thirty-two. Qatar qualified automatically as the host, and after years of matches, the other 31 teams earned the right to come and play. Meet the teams here.
How does the tournament work? The 32 teams are divided into eight groups of four. In the opening stage, each team plays all the other teams in its group once. The top two finishers in each group advance to the round of 16. After that, the World Cup is a straight knockout tournament.
How can I watch the World Cup in the U.S.? The tournament will be broadcast on Fox and FS1 in English, and on Telemundo in Spanish. You can livestream it on Peacock, or on streaming services that carry Fox and FS1. Here’s how to watch every match.
When will the games take place? Qatar is three hours ahead of London, eight hours ahead of New York and 11 hours ahead of Los Angeles. That means there will be predawn kickoffs on the East Coast of the United States for some games, and midafternoon starts for 10 p.m. games in Qatar.
Got more questions? We’ve got more answers here.
Iran will rue its bitter exit. Unlike the United States, it has never advanced out of the first round at a World Cup. Its team, long a symbol of unity in a persistently divided nation, had needed only a tie to advance. Its tournament had been a roller-coaster: a thumping at the hands of England, a last-minute win over Wales, a date against a young American team still finding its way.
But Iran’s time in Qatar also had been a crucible. As protests and crackdowns have roiled Iran for months, its soccer players have found themselves trying to navigate an excruciating and shrinking middle ground.
On one side were millions of their countrymen, protesters who have been urging them to use their voices, and their platforms, to do more to support the fight for more rights, more freedoms, more accountability. On the other was Iran’s government, intolerant of dissent and capable of crushing it forcefully, and quickly.
The Iranian players had tested their limits in Qatar, declining to sing their national anthem before their opening game, only to adjust, days later, and appear to grudgingly go through the motions days later before a match against Wales.
The World Cup held value for both sides. For the regime, a victory over the United States would be of immense value, a helpful point of national pride. For the protesters, Iran’s continued presence meant more days in the spotlight at the world’s biggest sporting event, more focus on their country and their cause, more chances to jeer the government in subtle — and vocal — ways inside stadiums.
It may have proved too much weight to bear.
The game itself, it turned out, was probably the easy part for Iran’s players. They held their own against the Americans’ repeated thrusts and, after Pulisic’s goal separated the teams, pushed again and again for the tying goal they knew would carry them through.
But the United States had motivation, too. Its team has been rebuilt since a stunning failure to qualify for the last World Cup. A new generation of talents had been unearthed, developed and unleashed on the tournament in Qatar. Some thought the Americans’ moment was still four years away, when its young talents would be just a little older, just a little more experienced, when the games would be on home soil in North America. The players showed otherwise.
“I looked around saw everybody had calm faces on,” defender Tim Ream said of the pressure of holding the lead as the clocked ticked, and ticked, and ticked. “No one was breathing heavy, or had panic in their eyes.”
The math on Tuesday was not a secret: England led the group going in to Tuesday’s simultaneous final games, ahead of Iran and then the U.S. and Wales. When England took a lead over the Welsh across the city, moving into position to win the group, both Iran and the United States narrowed their eyes and set their sights on second place, and the group’s other place in the knockout rounds.
By then the Americans were ahead. The goal had come off a sequence of incisive passes in the 38th minute: midfielder Weston McKennie picking out a sprinting Sergiño Dest racing up the right wing, Dest delivering a perfect skidding cross to Pulisic, who had read what was coming and come charging at the goal. He arrived just in time to redirect the ball past the goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, but their forceful collision left the American star lying in the net for several minutes.
Initially requiring help just to stand, and move, Pulisic eventually returned to the field for the final few minutes of the first half. But he didn’t return for the second half — team officials said he was headed to the hospital for scans on his injured midsection — and was replaced by one of team gang of young talents, Brenden Aaronson.
Few had expected their team to thrive here. Their moment, most thought, was four years away.
Pulisic made sure they would not have to wait.