US victory over Iran is relief for Berhalter amid tense and bizarre build-up

US victory over Iran is relief for Berhalter amid tense and bizarre build-up

DOHA, Qatar — On Monday, United States men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter was asked to be an economist, customs officer, military policy expert and United Nations ambassador, among others.

On Tuesday, he finally became what he wanted most: a coach who took his team to the knockout stages of the World Cup.

After the United States held off Iran 1-0 at Al Thumama Stadium, Berhalter embraced his coaching staff in a group bear hug in the technical area, their arms wrapped tightly around his shoulders. each other as they bounced up and down. He then ran onto the pitch to bask in the celebration with his players and the boisterous contingent of American fans behind the goal.

Four years after resuming a program in disarray, Berhalter had led the United States through what is, by far, the biggest victory of his career.

“It’s the first time in 92 years that we’ve had two shutouts at a World Cup,” Berhalter said red-faced later. “So the boys are doing something right.”

It was a remarkable 24 hours for Berhalter, the kind of incredible juxtaposition that can only exist in international football – and only with a match like the one the United States had against Iran, a country whose history, both alone and with the United States United States, is deep and complicated and messy.

This story is what fueled the buildup. The U.S. Soccer Federation played no small role in the pre-game discomfort, as it – unbeknownst to Berhalter or his players – posted images on social media showing the Iranian flag without the logo. of the Islamic Republic in an attempt to show support. for women in Iran who fight for the most basic human rights.

Well-meaning as he might have been, he nevertheless created a firestorm, and Berhalter was left to navigate it. At his press conference on Monday, Iranian journalists hurled stern questions at him, asking him to explain why inflation might be contributing to a lack of popularity for his team at home or to justify the various visa requirements that states United States impose on Iranians who might want to travel there. There was a question about American warships in the area.

It was, by all accounts, bizarre, but Berhalter – to his credit – handled it deftly. He apologized for any offense the social media posts may have caused while expressing his support for those fighting for a better life. He also did his best to bring the focus back to football. In many ways, this game was judgment day for Berhalter and his players at the end of a four-year resurrection, and Berhalter had to do everything he could to make sure his players were ready.

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Steve Nicol and Craig Burley preview the Round of 16 match between the United States and the Netherlands in the World Cup.

In short, they were. Castigating Berhalter is a bit of a cottage industry in the circles of those who follow Team USA closely – such is the life of an international manager, really – but it sure is: Berhalter has won a Gold Cup and a League of Nations. It has beaten Mexico three times (including in World Cup qualifiers). He oversaw a complete overhaul of the roster of talented young international players, made tough – and in some cases surprising – choices about whom to bring to Qatar and has now led that team to the knockout stages of the World Cup.

Is it perfect? He is not. There are still reasonable criticisms to be made about his tactics or replacement schemes, but striker Joshua Sargent was called up and put in a solid performance against Iran, as did defender Cameron Carter-Vickers (who replaced Walker Zimmerman). Tim Ream, a surprising late addition to the roster just before the World Cup, was also solid in defence. As stressful as it may have been, the United States was able to see their lead late.

More so, Berhalter motivated his players, pushing them to meet the moment. Berhalter recalled earlier in the week how he watched the United States lose to Iran in the infamous 1998 World Cup encounter, and he stressed how what stood out to him was the mismatch of emotional levels on the pitch. The Iranians wanted the game so badly, Berhalter said, and it was clear the Americans were far from the same kind of sentiment.

Tuesday was no problem. Not even close. There was fire, that’s for sure. But also a confidence that the moment was not too great.

“There was a calm in the team,” Ream said. “No one was breathing heavily or having panic in their eyes.”

It also helped that the tactics were in place. Christian Pulisic’s goal was the result of a streak that Ream said Berhalter and the coaches had specifically highlighted in their scouting, pulling the game wide to one side to expose the back post for Pulisic to attack. The goal was, as Ream said, “perfect, perfect, perfect” except for Pulisic’s collision with the Iranian keeper who sent Pulisic to the hospital mid-game for an abdominal CT scan.

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Herculez Gomez said the USMNT’s performance was “pretty brilliant” after beating Iran 1-0 to advance to the FIFA World Cup Round of 16.

If Pulisic can’t play against the Netherlands on Saturday (or is limited), it will be another difficulty for Berhalter. He has options – Giovanni Reyna still hasn’t played much and Brenden Aaronson is a lively substitute – but, either way, group motivation will again be crucial.

That’s what Berhalter wants. He never backed down from the challenges of his mission. He said time and time again that the goal of this team was to change the perception of American football around the world. The match against England contributed to this. Tuesday too.

Now comes another opportunity. Another chance. Berhalter will endure the arrows; all coaches do. He will take the criticism. All he cares about is that his players see what he sees, that they know what he knows: that this team can do anything. On Tuesday, after the hugs, the shouts and the video call to the hospital so Pulisic could join the party, Berhalter came to another more traditional press conference and reflected on what pleased him most about the night.

“We believed in ourselves,” he said. “We believed in what we were doing.

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