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Christian Pulisic and a whole lot of defense give USMNT a dramatic 1-0 World Cup win over Iran

The U.S. knew it had to win to advance. It did so by the narrowest margin possible, with Pulisic scoring and injuring himself on the winning decisive goal.

Hershey's Christian Pulisic (center) scored the United States' goal in the first half.
Hershey's Christian Pulisic (center) scored the United States' goal in the first half.Read moreHassan Ammar / AP

The U.S. men’s soccer team advanced to the round of 16 at the World Cup with a dramatic 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday in Doha, Qatar.

A clutch goal from Hershey’s Christian Pulisic in the first half and a whole lot of defense in the second — probably too much for the team’s own good — fueled the victory, sending the Americans to a matchup with the Netherlands at 10 a.m. Saturday (Fox29, Telemundo 62, Peacock).

Knowing that only a win would keep the U.S. alive in the tournament, manager Gregg Berhalter sent out a starting lineup with two big changes: Cameron Carter-Vickers for Walker Zimmerman at centerback and Josh Sargent’s return at striker for Haji Wright.

Both changes brought more speed to the field, with the aim of pressing high and containing Iran’s counterattacks. A side result was that the U.S. started a team of players entirely based in Europe, none in MLS, for the first time at a World Cup since the league launched in 1996.

It took just six seconds for Iran to win its first free kick in a dangerous position. The U.S. dealt with it, then made its way into a game that was pretty open in the early stages.

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Pulisic’s score and sacrifice

The Americans were dynamic in the early stages, highlighted by sizzling crosses from outside backs Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest that Iran barely dealt with. Then Tim Weah broke behind in the 28th minute, watched the ball bounce up, and jumped for a quick header without realizing he had enough time to settle the ball. Alireza Beiranvand caught the attempt easily.

In the 38th, the U.S. got its reward. A calm passing sequence saw the ball go from Robinson to Tyler Adams to Weston McKennie, who lofted a pass over Iran’s back line for Dest. He latched on, headed the ball into the middle, and Pulisic charged in to crash the ball into the net.

As the Hershey native met the ball, his groin — to put it politely — slammed into Beiranvand’s left knee. Pulisic stayed down for a long time, needed assistance to leave the field, and took a while to jog off the pain. He re-entered the field three minutes after scoring.

Right after the game, a U.S. team spokesperson said it was an abdominal injury, and Pulisic was going to the hospital for scans. A few hours later, the team said it officially is a “pelvic contusion,” and Pulisic is “day-to-day.”

Refereeing controversy

It should have been 2-0 at the start of first-half stoppage time, when Sargent and Weah got upfield on a break. But they got too cute with the ball, didn’t shoot it fast enough, and the play fell apart.

Weah was offside by inches on a breakaway where he finished. The assistant referee judging the play initially ruled him offside, and the video review officials didn’t overturn it — with the ruling coming so fast that Telemundo veteran broadcaster Andrés Cantor openly questioned whether the officials handled it right.

FIFA’s automated offside rendering confirmed the call by just enough.

» READ MORE: Christian Pulisic suffered a 'pelvic contusion' in the USMNT’s World Cup win over Iran

The box score tally at halftime was nine shots for the U.S., with three on target; 260 of 296 passing (88% accuracy); and 61% of the possession. Iran had zero shots.

Pulisic couldn’t go for the second half, so he was withdrawn for Brenden Aaronson. Within 90 seconds of kickoff, the Medford native sprung Sargent for a shot that was low and saved. Aaronson also took over for Pulisic in taking corner kicks.

Iran got on the ball much more after that, and the U.S. was forced to play counterattacking soccer. American legs were starting to tire, too, and, by the 65th minute, Kellyn Acosta was set to replace McKennie. While Acosta stood at the sideline waiting to enter, Saman Ghoddos flashed an open shot wide right.

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Prevent defense

As the clock kept ticking, Iran made more substitutions. Berhalter did not, continuing a custom that has angered committed and casual U.S. fans alike. But his hand was forced after Sargent landed awkwardly out of a tackle. The U.S. had to play a man down for a few moments before Wright could enter in the 77th.

In the final minutes, Berhalter chose to bunker in defensively instead of pushing for a second goal. Gio Reyna stayed on the bench as Shaq Moore replaced Dest at right back, and Zimmerman came in for Weah, putting the U.S. in a 5-4-1 formation.

The American football adage says the prevent defense prevents you from winning. Would it apply to the world’s football too?

Nine minutes of stoppage time went up on the fourth official’s board, drawing things out even more — though it wasn’t too surprising, as play had stopped a lot.

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Iran needed just one play to go right and get the tie it needed to advance at the U.S.’ expense. A big chance came in the third minute of stoppage time, when Yunus Musah committed a foul deep in his own half. The ensuing free kick was served in well by Ramin Rezaeian and headed just wide by Morteza Pouraliganji.

An even bigger chance came in the very last minute when goalkeeper Matt Turner flubbed claiming a cross and the ball rolled behind him, but Zimmerman bailed him out with a clearance. Iran’s players howled for a penalty to be called on Carter-Vickers for coming into Mehdi Taremi from behind, but referee Mateu Lahoz said no.

One more long minute later, Lahoz blew his whistle. The job was finally done.

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“I think that the first half, we showed what we could do, soccer-wise,” Berhalter told Fox’s TV broadcast after the game. “The second half, we showed what we could do, determination-wise. The guys grinded. They gave every single ounce of energy.”

And of the long wait for the final whistle, Berhalter said: “Counting every second, it’s stressful — I think I have less hair on my head now. But we’ll take it, and we’ll move on.”

The already-bald Berhalter didn’t say anything about his own role in sending the stress levels through the roof, nor was he asked. But McKennie said he and his fellow players were ready to embrace the moment.

“We wanted to control our destiny because we knew we could handle it,” he said. “We love this type of stuff. We love the pressure; we love the excitement, because we’re a young team. … At the end, it was a heart-drop, sinking moment, but we got it done, and we’re excited to still be here.”

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