The World Cup held value for both sides. For the regime, a victory over the United States would be of immense value, a helpful point of national pride. For the protesters, Iran’s continued presence meant more days in the spotlight at the world’s biggest sporting event, more focus on their country and their cause, more chances to jeer the government in subtle — and vocal — ways inside stadiums.
It may have proved too much weight to bear.
The game itself, it turned out, was probably the easy part for Iran’s players. They held their own against the Americans’ repeated thrusts and, after Pulisic’s goal separated the teams, pushed again and again for the tying goal they knew would carry them through.
But the United States had motivation, too. Its team has been rebuilt since a stunning failure to qualify for the last World Cup. A new generation of talents had been unearthed, developed and unleashed on the tournament in Qatar. Some thought the Americans’ moment was still four years away, when its young talents would be just a little older, just a little more experienced, when the games would be on home soil in North America. The players showed otherwise.
“I looked around saw everybody had calm faces on,” defender Tim Ream said of the pressure of holding the lead as the clocked ticked, and ticked, and ticked. “No one was breathing heavy, or had panic in their eyes.”
The math on Tuesday was not a secret: England led the group going in to Tuesday’s simultaneous final games, ahead of Iran and then the U.S. and Wales. When England took a lead over the Welsh across the city, moving into position to win the group, both Iran and the United States narrowed their eyes and set their sights on second place, and the group’s other place in the knockout rounds.
By then the Americans were ahead. The goal had come off a sequence of incisive passes in the 38th minute: midfielder Weston McKennie picking out a sprinting Sergiño Dest racing up the right wing, Dest delivering a perfect skidding cross to Pulisic, who had read what was coming and come charging at the goal. He arrived just in time to redirect the ball past the goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, but their forceful collision left the American star lying in the net for several minutes.
Initially requiring help just to stand, and move, Pulisic eventually returned to the field for the final few minutes of the first half. But he didn’t return for the second half — team officials said he was headed to the hospital for scans on his injured midsection — and was replaced by one of team gang of young talents, Brenden Aaronson.
Few had expected their team to thrive here. Their moment, most thought, was four years away.
Pulisic made sure they would not have to wait.