Who would love it, the third-best team in CONCACAF, the weakest soccer region on the planet? Well, its supporters, obviously, but even many of the fervent were wary of having high hopes for the United States at this World Cup.
And yet, Team USA has become a team to admire in Qatar. It is young, energetic, composed and it doesn’t give up. It has progressed to the knockout rounds on the basis of a 1-1 draw with Wales, a 0-0 draw with England and a 1-0 victory over Iran in a game that was bitterly fought and highly adrenalized.
That’s the thing about the United States – almost every match it enters is a grudge-match of some sort. It plays England and the more hysterical areas of the U.S. media talk about it being a matter of post-colonial hostility, as though the American Revolution happened last year. The match against Iran was drenched in genuine antipathy of a more recent vintage.
So, the Americans just played their game, and that’s where they become praiseworthy. Confession time: I really like this U.S. team. It’s not love, exactly, but it is respect and affection.
Take that fraught match against Iran. All Iran needed was a draw to move on to the round of 16. The United States scored first, so a single goal was then the needed outcome. A goal didn’t seem to be Iran’s aspiration, mind you. It hacked at the American wingers, the Iranian players feigned outrage when caught, and they kept on hacking. The ceaseless fouling of Josh Sargent and Brenden Aaronson in particular looked petty, perverse and vicious. Yet the U.S. players barely reacted, declining to descend into the delirium that Iran wanted.
The U.S. goal, when it came, arrived courtesy of Christian Pulisic, a 24-year-old from Hershey, Penn., who plays for Chelsea in England and has, for years now, carried the weight of being designated his country’s best player. At times he doesn’t look the best, but what he’s always got is bravery, an underappreciated instrument at the World Cup. Sensing possibility in a nodded cross from Sergino Gianni Dest, Pulisic burst into the area, pushing through two defenders and into a collision with Iran keeper Alirez Beiranvand, whose knee struck the American hard in the abdomen.
Pulisic continued until halftime, was then assessed, and promptly hospitalized. He looked seriously injured, but that was a crucial strike and a vital goal. There was also something as noble as bravery about what happened at the end of the match. Several U.S. players consoled their counterparts, who looked devastated by the loss. Given what Iran’s players have done, and been through, and the hostility aimed at the United States, the American team could have taken a triumphalist attitude, but didn’t. Sometimes being classy is its own form of bravery.
With one of the youngest rosters in Qatar and struggling to qualify behind Canada and Mexico, expectations were low, even among devoted supporters of the United States. While it’s true the unit lacks a natural striker and main goal-scorer, there’s a vibe about this team that’s all-positivity.
Midfielder Yunus Musah, often the engine of the team, plays his soccer for Valencia in Spain, trained at Arsenal’s academy in England and captained England youth teams, but two years ago U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter called him and said he “really needed” him in the team. Musah could also have played for Ghana but apparently it was Berhalter’s promise about the future that persuaded him.
The future is the key storyline about these Americans. They will co-host in 2026 with Canada and Mexico and in four years, this Team USA could be world-beaters. The squad looks carefully chosen and curated, rather than put together from big names and a roster of veterans. Berhalter has knit together players who toil in England, Europe and Major League Soccer. Whatever it is that gels them, it’s working.
The United States faces the Netherlands on Saturday, and might be without Pulisic. No matter what happens it will play with a gusto that nobody else has brought to the tournament. With Canada going home, what’s a Canadian to do? We could do worse than admire the neighbour’s energy, verve and bravery.