You knew it would to come to this for the U.S. men’s soccer team playing in its first World Cup in eight years.
Win and advance.
Lose and return home in the ignominy of not having proven itself as the advancing soccer nation it fancies itself as.
This is what awaits the Americans, who seem to attract stressful scenarios like wool sweaters to lint at a laundromat, when they play Iran in their third and final Group B match on Tuesday in Qatar.
The Americans put themselves in this situation by letting their opener against Wales on Tuesday get away from them in the second half, turning a 1-0 lead at the half into an unfulfilling 1-1 draw with a conservative approach (think prevent defense in the NFL) in the final 45.
Had the U.S. taken care of business against Wales, Friday’s litmus-test draw with England would have all-but guaranteed an advancement to the knockout stage with four points.
Instead, the Americans enter Tuesday’s Iran match with two points and needing an outright victory to advance to the round of 16.
Rarely do two draws feel such a world apart.
Tuesday’s 1-1 draw with Wales, ranked 19th in the world, left the Americans angered and frustrated at securing only one point instead of three for the victory.
Friday’s 0-0 result against England, ranked fifth in the world and one of the favorites to win the World Cup, left the U.S. side buoyed with confidence.
“We’re proud, but our work’s not done,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We have to win on Tuesday. We know five points gets us in.”
If the Americans play on Tuesday against Iran the way they did Friday against England — and they can manage to score a goal or two — they will advance. Because they played free and were dynamic, all the while remaining strong in the back.
“There were a lot of positives,” U.S. star Christian Pulisic said. “We had stretches where we were dominant and created some chances and unfortunately couldn’t finish them off. But we managed the game quite well and to come away with a draw against them is obviously a great result. But we thought we could win the game.”
The Americans had their chances, creating seven corner kicks, all of which were taken by Pulisic.
“I’d like to see goals … on set pieces,” Berhalter said.
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Other than their age-old problem with finishing scoring chances, the Americans looked in the England match very much like a team that should defeat Iran, which lost 6-2 to England in its first match and defeated Wales 2-0 on Friday, and advance to the knockout stage.
Even without scoring a goal, U.S. soccer took a significant step forward against England.
The Americans, whose growing confidence as the match wore on was palpable, were the more dangerous side. They had England on the back foot for a lot of the match, generating those seven corner kicks to three for England, outshooting England 10-8 and coming the closest of the two teams to scoring when Pulisic hit the crossbar with a left-footed missile in the 33rd minute.
Berhalter, who wasn’t at his tactical best in the second half of the Wales match, employed a 4-4-2 shape in this match (four defenders, four midfielders and two forwards), which did a couple of things: It generated some terrific counterattack opportunities and it slowed England’s transition to the attacking third of the field.
“They are a really athletic and well-organized team,” England striker Harry Kane said.
“They make it difficult to get through the first two-thirds of the field because of their athleticism and their defensive organization,” England coach Gareth Southgate said.
“I don’t think we’re disappointed,” U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie said. “We knew we would come out here and put up a fight and as you could see, we were all-in. I think we had the majority of the chances. We were more dangerous. We just couldn’t get in the back of the net.”
That, of course, is going to have to change, because the U.S. cannot defeat Iran and advance unless it scores at least one goal. The Americans can shut out Iran Tuesday, but if they don’t score, they go home.
So, here we are.
Win or go home.
“The most important thing is that it’s in our hands how we want to continue in this group,” McKennie said.
“It’s all about winning the game, so we’ve got to come out very aggressive and win the game to move on to the next round,” Pulisic said. “And I’m very confident we can do it.”