Through to the next round. Advancing out of the group stage at the World Cup is always a success, but for the United States getting to that last 16 is a valuable point of reference for a team where qualifying is not always guaranteed. Navigating a veteran and gritty Group B, the USMNT scored two goals, gave up one from a penalty, and generally played strong and exciting first halves which led to second halves of substitutions and game management. Fans were left exasperated and scratching their heads.
The latter two games of the group, USA-England and USA-Iran, were hyped and promoted as geopolitical clashes. Fox’s TV coverage constantly flashed not-so-subtle reminders that the USMNT is a representative of the United States on this stage. It’s also a reminder that the politics of the Qatar World Cup are never far away.
The first game of the group against Wales was a wake-up call that soured early hopes but came at the right time for the team, allowing for a response in the next two games. The veteran Welsh, with perhaps too much of a reliance on stars slightly past their prime (no offense to Gareth Bale or LAFC), proved nevertheless to be a hard-working team, encapsulated by their efforts in substituting Kieffer Moore and kicking it long to their lanky striker. This of course paid dividends, with Gareth Bale winning and scoring a penalty to nab Wales their lone point of their first World Cup since 1958! Besides allowing Wales their goal and point, this game also allowed a glimpse of the talent and skill of Timothy Weah, the Lille striker otherwise known as Ballon D’Or winner and President of Liberia George Weah’s son. Good family to have around the USMNT camp. A deft touch with the outside of the boot capped off an example of the decisive and fast play, creatively and skillfully executed, that the team and their young roster need to play with to reach their top potential at this World Cup.
Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and a celebration of the consumer in the United States, created an exciting atmosphere and drew the most eyes to a men’s soccer broadcast in American history. Being home for the holidays, I watched the game at a bar with friends; a fun atmosphere, though Pittsburgh, like many parts of the US, remains more of an American football town. I wonder how the support for the USMNT will develop as this generation of American stars continues to emerge on a European stage.
The first half had a fast and watchable rhythm, with the US on the front foot, including a McKennie miss that unfortunately got worse as more replays were shown and a Pulisic lighting left foot which hit the crossbar. The second half slowed with both managers seemingly content with a draw. A Harry Kane header at the death that he makes more often than not almost soured the day but the nil-nil result was done. Two points through two games, including a good display against the top team in the group meant many fans were cautiously satisfied with the result, though left wanting more. Questions about Gregg Berhalter’s adjustments and substitutions only grew in number, with Gio Reyna only being used for eight minutes and with England off their game some, a win was within reach. Nothing doing but a win-or-go-home matchup set for Tuesday.
With the buildup to the final group stage matchup, the politics came to a simmer. A social media graphic from the USMNT account presented the Iraninan flag without the symbol for the Islamic Republic. A subtle statement from the United States media, one taken by some in Iran to be a geopolitical offense, who called for the US to be removed from the World Cup. This of course did not happen but Iraninan journalists (who are largely state-affiliated) took an opportunity to question Gregg Berhalter and captain Tyler Adams in a forum that would be widely seen. There were a lot of questions that did not directly pertain to the game and one which alluded to the everyday politics of being black and representing the United States, which Adams handled well, if politically correct. Politics are never far in this World Cup, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the sporting landscape evolves after this, the biggest event in the world with politics in the face of the viewer in a way not seen before. Some in the West seem turned off by the moneymaking side of the sport, which looks destined to continue.
The game itself was an important one for both sides, but a kickoff during the workday in the winter is not ideal for watch parties. Iran seemed content in the first half to let the US bring the game to them, springing direct counters that never quite had enough oomph. For the US in the first thirty minutes, it was deja vu of the England game, where chances could not be put away. With decisiveness, McKennie hit Sergiño Dest with a long diagonal and Dest headed it back across the box for Captain America himself, Christian Pulisic, to put it away for a 1-0 lead. In first half injury time, another pretty Weah outside of the boot goal was ruled offside, but the sharp edges of the team were primed, almost capitalizing for two. Pulisic paid the price for the beauty of his goal with a knee to the gut harder than any of us have felt. He suffered a bruised sternum and a halftime substitution, but early signs are good that he will play today. The second half saw no clear-cut chances but more questions about Berhalter’s strategy. The adjustments seemed designed to play more cautiously, which is frustrating as a fan who wants to see the team show the ability to put the game to bed. An absent Reyna again leaves rumors of a rift no quieter. The body language of both sets of players after the game was telling. The US players collapsed with exhaustion, but soon up again in excitement, job done and group stage test passed. The Iraninan players did not hold back their emotion, evident of the pressure they must be feeling with the current state of protests and backlash in their homeland.
The US are through to the round of 16 for only the sixth time in 18 appearances, where the squad faces a matchup with the Netherlands: Group A winners, but not invincible. Today’s match is likely to be another highly-watched affair. There are two big questions facing the team going into this game. The first is how will the team hold up against the pressing and star power of the Dutch. Cody Gapko has been the young player of the tournament so far, Frenkie De Jong is reminding people of his class, Denzel Dumfries is powering the right wing, and their three at the back are all world-class. If the US midfield (arguably their strongest group) can excel, and the wingbacks hold up, the team could find some magic.
The second question about the game leads into a larger one about the future of the team. The former being, “What will Berhalter’s game management look like?” The question that naturally follows: “Is Berhalter the coach of the future?” I’m sure that Berhalter will be evaluated upon more than the result of one game, but for an exciting young team, he seems attached to certain dogmatic tactics or plans, even if more success might be found elsewhere. Coming out with a performance on the front foot, with positive adjustments might allow Berhalter some time post-World Cup to continue on. Expectations will continue to grow for this iteration of the USMNT and with that questions about finding the right coach for the future of the team are inevitable.