When FIFA announced the groups for the World Cup back in April, Group B was highlighted right away. While the showdown between the USA and England captured most of the headlines, it’s Tuesday’s matchup against Iran that will determine whether the USMNT advances to the next round.
Though both nations were tipped to bow out in the group stage, the USA and Iran have managed to surprise the world this year as they battle to advance from the group. A win would be enough to see either side through, at the loser’s expense. A draw would eliminate the USA, though it would leave Iran with hope of qualifying if England draw or win against Wales.
There is plenty of history between these two nations, on and off the pitch. While the political ties will certainly fuel the intensity of this match, it’s the on-field history that matters most in this context.
At the 1998 World Cup in France, the USA played Iran in the only competitive match they’ve ever played against one another. Commonly referred to as the “most politically-charged game in World Cup history,” it came at a time when tensions between these nations were high. Iran emerged the 2-1 victors, claiming their first ever win at a FIFA World Cup.
Though neither team advanced from the group in 1998, both teams are hoping for a deeper run this time around. In a World Cup filled with upsets and unexpected storylines, anything could happen when the game kicks off on Tuesday.
What to expect from Iran:
In their previous two matches at this World Cup, we’ve seen two totally different looks from Iran. The 5-4-1 formation they used in their opener against England proved completely ineffective, as they were torn apart in a 6-2 loss. It was an entirely uninspiring performance from the Persian Stars, but they weren’t dead yet.
In the next match against Wales, Carlos Quieroz shifted his team into a 4-3-3 formation. This switch suited the squad more naturally, allowing stars Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Tahremi to shine alongside an organized team. In stark contrast from their opening match, Iran put together 90 minutes of composed defending, controlling the game and truly earning all three points.
When they take the field against the USA, it is highly likely that the Lions of Persia will continue with their 4-3-3 approach. The 5-4-1 was put in place with the intention of stymying England’s lethal attack, an adjustment that clearly failed. The USA won’t be considered quite as big of a threat, and a win will guarantee Iran advances. An attacking approach will be the only option if they want to control their own fate.
If they play to their strengths like they did against Wales, Iran will be difficult to break down. They are compact and disciplined, with the tools necessary to be a huge threat on the break. If Azmoun or Tahremi get the smallest of windows, they’re more than capable of scoring. On top of that, this squad has proven that it can maintain its focus across an entire match, scoring two stoppage time goals to down the Welsh at the death.
What does the USA need to do?
For the USA, the knockout stage begins now. Every match has become win or go home, and the only way to win is by scoring goals. Unfortunately, that has been difficult for the Americans at this tournament.
In two games, the USA have only managed one goal and two shots on target. Their biggest goal threats are Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah, with the rest of the squad failing to register a shot on goal. It’s clear that Iran’s defense is vulnerable, but they are trending in the right direction after the clean sheet against Wales.
If the USA wants to advance, they need to step up their attacking effort. They’ve shown an incredible workrate in the midfield and defense, but they must bring that forward this time around. At the World Cup, it isn’t good enough to be either skilled or hardworking; you must be both. If the Yanks can bring their intensity into the attack, the goals they’ve been looking for might start coming.
The midfield trio of Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and captain Tyler Adams has inspired the team thus far. They’ve cleaned up just about every mistake in the middle of the pitch, even dropping to support the defense whenever they’ve been stretched too thin. Any success in this final group game will start with this trio, just as it has all tournament long.
If Gregg Berhalter is looking for someone to change the game, he may consider giving a starting spot to Brendan Aaronson or Gio Reyna. Thus far, no striker has registered a shot on target for the USA. Instead of trying to play the same system, Berhalter may very well opt for a lineup that gets our most talented players on the field, employing a false nine rather than forcing an ineffective striker onto the pitch once more.
The last time the USA played a must-win group stage match was against Algeria in 2010, and we all remember how that turned out. Watch out for Landon Donovan-esque runs late in the game, World Cup magic is in the air. GO, GO USA!