The Sweet Taste of ... Relief
Well, hey, that was exciting. It was, in fact, too exciting. I don’t think most of us needed quite that much excitement. I personally would have settled for roughly 40% less excitement, if I’m being honest. But, as they used to tell our girls when they were in preschool, you get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.
The end result is that the United States held on for dear life and got a 1-0 victory over Iran in the World Cup match they had to win. That means that the U.S. plays the Netherlands on Saturday in the Round of 16, which is super exciting. This is a very special thing. The U.S. had made the Round of 16 only four times in the modern history of the World Cup.
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1994: The World Cup was held in the United States, and the U.S. BARELY made it to the knockout stage (they actually finished third in their group), where they were beaten only 1-0 by Brazil in one of the great moral victories in recent American sports history.
2002: By far the best performance in American World Cup history, the U.S. beat Portugal in the group stage and advanced, then beat Mexico 2-0 to reach the quarterfinals. The dream ended there against Germany, 1-0.
2010: This was the wild one — the U.S. advanced only when Landon Donovan scored the biggest goal in American soccer history against Algeria in stoppage time. The U.S. then lost to Ghana 2-1 in extra time.
2014: This time around, the U.S. beat Ghana in the group stage and advanced into the Round of 16, where they lost in extra time to Belgium.
Now it will be the Netherlands … but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Tuesday’s game against Iran was … well, wow.
Let me spend a moment talking about how I, as a casual American soccer fan, watch the game: I follow the ball. Maybe you can relate to this. I watch the ball and keep watching the ball and I get excited when there are goal-scoring chances and I get frustrated when those chances are squandered. I can appreciate a great tackle on the ball. I can appreciate a great save. I mostly appreciate great passes and great individual skills on the ball.
I watch the game like this, I think, because I have not watched that much soccer in my life. I’m an amateur. I’ve watched so much football that I’m always looking away from the ball at coverages or potential blitzers or who is in the backfield. I’ve watched so much basketball that I’m always looking away from the ball, at the defenses, at mismatches. I’ve watched baseball most of all, and so I naturally have developed the skill of seeing the entire field all at once, seeing where the cutoff man is, seeing if the pitcher is backing up third, seeing if the outfielder got a good jump, seeing if the runner got a good jump and so on. Nobody really taught me to do this — or maybe it’s better to say that LOTS of people taught me how to do this. I’ve just watched so much.
But soccer — no, I simply don’t have the skill set to follow the game the same way.
So, yeah, I could see why after the game everyone was going gaga over the American goal scorer Christian Pulisic, today’s Captain America. In the 38th minute, Pulisic came crashing through the penalty area — in the words of former American soccer star Clint Dempsey, “sacrificing everything for his country!” — and he got a foot on a sweet header pass from Sergiño Dest and punched it past the Iranian goalkeeper. He then smashed into the goalkeeper. Pulisic hurt himself badly on the play; he could barely stand up after the goal.
“It’s Captain America to the rescue,” the announcer shouted.
And, I’m copping to this right now: Yes, in my clumsy soccer fanhood, I, too, would focus all of my energy on Pulisic.
Except, to do that might be to miss a much larger picture.
For one thing, the goal was really set up by a breathtakingly wonderful pass from American midfielder Weston McKennie. His pass had that touch of magic we talk about here sometimes, perfectly timed, perfectly weighted, right on Dest’s head. That was a world-class pass. This isn’t to downplay what Pulisic did, not at all. But there’s so much more to this team’s story than Captain America to the rescue.
Here’s another example: Every true soccer fan I know is telling me that the United States’ best player, by far, has been Tyler Adams (who is also this team’s ACTUAL captain). The Athletic’s John Muller tweeted this after the nil-nil draw against England.
Adams has not only been the United States’ best player … he has been one of the best players in the entire tournament. He is, several people are telling me, putting together perhaps the greatest individual performance a U.S. player has ever had at the World Cup.
And I am just not a savvy enough soccer fan to recognize and appreciate it.
I’ll try harder.
One thing I did appreciate on Tuesday was the late-game efforts of Walker Zimmerman. The U.S. scored that first goal late in the first half and then looked like they might have a second goal — Tim Weah got behind the defense in first-half stoppage time and punched it in, but was called offside. I have watched the replay numerous times and simply cannot see how it is offside. I guess this is supposed to explain it.
I still don’t see it. How about now?
I STILL don’t see it. People have explained to me that the rule now is that the offside line is drawn at the shoulder. Maybe that explains it. Maybe it doesn’t. I do not know enough about soccer to complain, but I will anyway: This is very stupid.
OK, got that out of the way.
Anyway, after that goal was disallowed (boo!), the hope was that the U.S. would press early in the second half, get that second goal, and make things easy on us fans. They did not do that. Instead, they let Iran take the initiative and spent most of the second half fighting off chance after chance after chance. The closest feeling I can express is that it was like watching your favorite NFL team playing a soft prevent defense — FOR THIRTY MINUTES.
And in that fog of nerves and groans and gasps of relief, Walker Zimmerman was supreme. He seemed to win every header. He was there behind the goalkeeper when the ball squirted toward the goal (his clearance wasn’t the best, but it was good enough). The frantic last minutes were mostly spent by Iran trying to win a cheap penalty, and the Iranians might have come close a couple of times. But in the end, the U.S. held on for the victory. And what was left in the instant the game ended was less a celebration and more a gigantic sigh of relief. I told this to an English friend.
“Yeah, mate,” he texted back. “Now you’re getting what football is about.”