It’s now all to play for on Tuesday.
A U.S. win will put the Stars and Stripes into the knockout stage, while a loss or tie will see Iran go through for the first time ever.
The USMNT, on the other hand, advanced to the round of 16 in 2010 and 2014. Let’s preview Tuesday’s pivotal matchup against Iran to see if the U.S. can add 2022 to its World Cup knockout stage resume:
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USMNT vs. Iran key storylines
Let’s look at three key storylines for each team:
- Shots on target: I said it after the Wales draw – the USMNT’s main problem is their end product. The build-up play to create chances vastly improved against England’s back four compared to Wales’ back five, but Iran will likely utilize a variation of the 5-4-1 against England to provide extra stability defensively. Iran only needs a draw, so it likely won’t be too aggressive often to avoid getting hit by the speed of the U.S. attack in transition. The U.S. has had two shots on target in two games – they desperately need more if they want the three points.
- Who starts at striker? This plays into the storyline above. Both Josh Sargent and Haji Wright have gotten starts, but both failed to be a consistent goal threat. A lack of service plays a factor, but those two also aren’t the types of players to make plays for themselves. Could Jesús Ferreira come into play? Or does Christian Pulisic play as a false No. 9? You can’t win without goals – as simple as it sounds, the U.S. is experiencing just that.
- Does Gio Reyna start? After being an unused sub and only playing about 10 minutes off the bench against England, you have to wonder how much playing time Reyna gets in a do-or-die matchup. The U.S. offense is screaming for creativity in the midfield and a final ball in the attacking third, which fits Reyna’s profile. Gregg Berhalter has to play for the win, and – logically speaking – that should mean Reyna gets heavy minutes.
- Lineup dilemma: Will Carlos Queiroz revert to his 5-4-1 lineup? As aforementioned, it makes sense given how much the U.S. theoretically will attack as they’ll be desperate for goals. And if so, how aggressive will they be on the ball? Iran isn’t built to control possession, so expect the U.S. to hold the ball more often, but Iran’s low block will need to be stout.
- Will both star strikers start? Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi are Iran’s most notable names – but both play the same position. Azmoun didn’t start against England due to fitness issues, but both lined up together in the Wales’ win. What about against the U.S.? Does Azmoun play as the No. 9 with Taremi as the left midfielder in a 5-4-1? Or will Queiroz go with a 5-3-2 so both can play up top with Taremi free roaming? Iran’s approach to the game will reveal a lot about the result it’s going for.
- Composure: There is no doubting the amount of pressure now facing this Iran side. It’s a position it has never found itself in, so inexperience could come into play. Iran’s resolve will no doubt be tested by a U.S. team expected to have its foot on the gas 24/7. All Iran needs is a tie, but if the U.S. scores first, things will get interesting.
USMNT vs. Iran players to watch
Here are three players to watch for both teams:
- Christian Pulisic: He was the first one in this category against Wales and England, and he’ll be here again. This tournament is screaming for a Pulisic goal. In the USMNT’s biggest game in recent memory, will Pulisic deliver the decisive moment?
- Matt Turner: The Arsenal goalkeeper continues to be stellar between the sticks, conceding just a penalty through two games. The U.S. defense generally has been solid bar Walker Zimmerman’s tackle on Gareth Bale that led to the penalty. Iran has the strikers that can test Turner, so he’ll need to stay focused on preventing goals as the U.S. will be aggressive in pursuing them on the other side of the pitch.
- Weston McKennie: The U.S. got away without a yellow card against England, so no players will miss the Iran game based on card accumulation. That’s most important for McKennie, who was everywhere on the right side of the field against the Three Lions. If he can maintain that level against Iran, the U.S. should manage a goal out of it. The same applies with Yunus Musah’s ball progression on the left side.
- Sardar Azmoun: The Bayern Leverkusen striker has been quiet at the club level this year, but he gave the Welsh backline 68 minutes of trouble before being substituted due to lack of fitness. He’s one of two strikers the U.S. will have to pay attention to.
- Mehdi Taremi: The FC Porto striker bagged two goals against England and has shown he can make something out of nothing. His ball striking is elite, and he only needs a sliver of space before unleashing a shot on target. Zimmerman, Turner and Tim Ream will need to be careful in the middle of the field defensively.
- Hossein Hosseini: Alireza Beiranvand’s injury has pushed 30-year-old Hosseini into the spotlight as Iran’s starting goalie. He held firm against Wales after conceding six to England, so the U.S. has to find ways to test him more often.
USMNT vs. Iran predicted starting lineups
Let’s take a look at how each team could line up for the game:
Berhalter made one key change to his lineup against England, which was at No. 9. The 4-3-3 shape stayed the same in possession while they ran an asymmetric 4-4-2 midblock defensively to halt England’s link-up play centrally. If Berhalter does make a change, it might be at striker again, though they’ll likely need Wright’s height and physicality as a target man inside the box against Iran’s backline.
GK: Matt Turner; LB - Antonee Robinson, CB - Tim Ream, CB - Walker Zimmerman, RB - Sergiño Dest; CDM - Tyler Adams, CM - Yunus Musah, CM - Weston McKinnie; LW - Christian Pulisic, ST - Haji Wright, RW - Tim Weah
Carlos Queiroz will likely run a 5-4-1 or 5-3-1-1 low block that becomes a 5-3-2 or a 3-5-2 in transition, depending on how aggressive or passive they want to play as the game progresses.
GK: Hossein Hosseini; LWB - Milad Mohammadi, CB - Majid Hosseini, CB - Morteza Pourailganji, RWB - Sadegh Moharrami; LM - Ehsan Hajsafi, CM - Ahmad Nourollahi, CM - Ali Karemi, RM - Ali Gholizadeh; ST - Sardar Azmoun, ST - Mehdi Taremi
USMNT vs. Iran prediction
Besides Zimmerman’s lone slip up, the U.S. defense has rarely been under pressure against a decent Wales team and an elite England side. Iran is not to be underestimated, but the U.S. should neutralize Iran’s build-up play, especially with the way Tyler Adams is bossing the midfield. The story here is the U.S. attack vs. the Iran defense. Can the U.S. generate enough pressure in front of goal? They’ll need to replicate a similar performance to that of June’s 3-0 rout of Morocco where they logged 11 total shots that saw 10 hit the target.
But because both the U.S. and Iran have been primarily involved in low-scoring affairs recently, this one will either be a narrow low-scoring affair or a Portugal-Ghana Group H-type thriller where both teams throw away tactics and play directly towards goal. Neither team can afford to lose, but the USMNT’s quality should come through in the end to log their first ever victory against Iran (0-1-1 all-time record in two games).
Prediction: USA 2, Iran 0