USA’s win over Iran a relief for Berhalter amid a tense build-up that had turned bizarre

USA’s win over Iran a relief for Berhalter amid a tense build-up that had turned bizarre

7: 51 PM ET

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    Sam BordenESPN Senior Writer

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      Sam Borden is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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

On Tuesday, he finally got to be what he most wanted: a coach who has taken his team to the knockout rounds of the World Cup.

After the USA 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 one another’s shoulders as they bounced up and down. After celebrating with his players and the cheering crowd, Berhalter jogged onto the field. Four years after taking over a disorganized program, Berhalter had brought the US through this, which is by far his biggest win.

“It’s the first time in 92 years that we’ve had two shutouts at a World Cup,” Berhalter said later, his face flushed. The boys are doing something right. “

It was a remarkable 24 hours for Berhalter, the type of incredible juxtaposition that can exist only in international soccer — and only with a matchup like the one the US had against Iran, a country whose history, both on its own and with the United States, is deep and complicated and messy. This history was what fuelled the build-up. The U.S. Soccer Federation played no small part in the uncomfortableness ahead of the game, as it — without the knowledge of Berhalter or his players — posted images to social media that showed Iran’s flag without the Islamic Republic logo in an attempt to show support for women in Iran who are fighting for the most basic human rights.

Well intentioned as it might have been, it nonetheless created a firestorm, and Berhalter was left to navigate it. Iranian journalists asked Berhalter harsh questions Monday at his news conference, asking him why inflation might have caused a decline in popularity for his team back home. They also wanted to know why the United States has various visa requirements for Iranians wanting to travel to the United States. A question was raised about the US warships in this region. It was, by all measures, bizarre but Berhalter handled it skillfully. He apologized for any offense the social media posts might have caused while expressing support for those who are fighting for a better life. He tried to bring the focus back on soccer. This match was in many ways a judgment day for Berhalter’s players and his four-year resurrection. Berhalter had to do everything he could to ensure his players were ready for it.

In short, they were. Castigating Berhalter is something that is somewhat of a cottage business in the circles of people who closely follow the US team — such is life as a foreign manager really — but one thing is certain: Berhalter has won a Gold Cup, and a Nations League. He has beaten Mexico three times (including in World Cup qualifying). He has overseen a complete roster overhaul of young and talented international players, made tough — and in some cases stunning — choices about who to bring to Qatar and has now led that squad to the Round of 16 in the World Cup. Is he perfect? He’s not. There are still reasonable criticisms to be made of his tactics or substitution patterns, but forward Joshua Sargent was called back in and delivered a strong performance against Iran, as did defender Cameron Carter-Vickers (who came in for Walker Zimmerman). Tim Ream, a surprising late add to the roster just before the World Cup, was stout in defense as well. The USA managed to hold its lead, despite the stress.

Berhalter encouraged his players and pushed them to live in the moment. Berhalter recalled earlier in the week how he’d watched the US lose to Iran in the infamous 1998 World Cup meeting, and he highlighted how what stood out to him was the mismatch in emotional levels on the field. Berhalter stated that the Iranians wanted to win the game and that the Americans didn’t have the same feeling.

That wasn’t an issue on Tuesday. Not even close. Fire was evident. There was also a sense of calm that the moment was not too big.

” There was a calmness around the team,” Ream stated. “No one was feeling panicky or heavy breathing. It helped that the tactics were in order, too. Christian Pulisic‘s goal was a result of a sequence that Ream said Berhalter and the coaches had specifically emphasized in their scouting, a pulling of the play far to one side in order to expose the back post for Pulisic to attack. The goal was, as Ream said, “perfect, perfect, perfect,” save for Pulisic’s collision with the Iranian goalkeeper that sent Pulisic to the hospital in the middle of the game for an abdominal scan.

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If Pulisic can’t play against the Netherlands on Saturday (or is limited), it will be another bump for Berhalter to navigate. He has options — Giovanni Reyna still hasn’t featured much, and Brenden Aaronson is a lively substitute — but, either way, motivation for the group will be crucial again. That is what Berhalter wants. Berhalter has never shied away form the mission’s stakes. He has repeatedly stated that the team’s goal was to change the perception of American football around the world. The game against England helped that. Tuesday was no exception.

Now comes another chance. Another chance. Berhalter will take the arrows. All coaches do. He will take the criticisms. He doesn’t care about the criticisms. All he cares is that his players see what he sees and know what he knows. After the shouting, the hugging, and the video call to Pulisic’s hospital so he could join the fun, Berhalter went to another traditional news conference and reflected on the best things about the night.

” We believed in ourselves,” he stated. “We believed in what was happening. “

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