Any hopes that Gregg Berhalter’s United States team could stick to sports on the eve of their win-or-go-home game against Iran at the World Cup were dramatically swept aside on Monday when the thorny geopolitical underpinnings of the match exploded to the fore during a tense half-hour news conference.
But even as Berhalter parried a series of provocative questions from Iranian media invoking US immigration policy, inflation rates and school shootings, and the 23-year-old squad captain Tyler Adams was called upon to answer for America’s centuries-old legacy of inequality and racial discrimination, both men remained laser-focused on the task at hand.
The United States need a victory on Tuesday night at the Al Thumama Stadium to reach the knockout stage and extend their first World Cup appearance after an eight-year absence. That it happens to be a rematch of one of the most politically charged matches in World Cup history is beside the point.
“I know that a lot of other constituents have another feeling towards it, but for us it’s a soccer game against a good team and it’s not much more than that,” Berhalter said. “It’s a knockout game. Both teams want to go to the next round, both teams are desperate to go to the next round, and that’s how we’re looking at this match. We’re very focused on what we could do as a team, as are they, and we think it’s gonna be a good soccer game.”
Berhalter also was pressed on the biggest non-political controversy around his team: the recent claim by former US international Eric Wynalda that Gio Reyna’s limited action in Qatar is due to a “rift” with the manager.
Reyna, the 20-year-old Borussia Dortmund winger and one of the US team’s most promising young talents, played seven minutes against England as a late substitute after being left out of the team entirely against Wales. Berhalter has told reporters that Reyna’s abbreviated minutes are due to “tightness”, while Reyna has claimed he is fully fit and ready to go.
Those crossed signals came under a harsh glare on Friday when Wynalda, who played for the national team from 1990 through 2000 and retired as the program’s all-time leading goalscorer, said Berhalter is not telling the truth and the situation is causing “internal strife” within the team. He also stated that he had spoken with Gio’s father Claudio, the former US captain and Berhalter’s childhood friend and ex-teammate.
On Monday, Berhalter denied Wynalda’s claim of a conspiracy, saying: “That’s just not who I am.”
“Speaking of the four-year journey, there’s been also four years of interacting with you guys [the US media], and what I’d say is: I’ll leave it to you to decide if I asked Gio to lie about it,” Berhalter said. “That’s just not who I am. That’s not what I represent. So if you have to take Eric’s word or my word or whatever, feel free, but I know what happened and that’s not what I represent. Like every other person, Gio is a member of this team that we care deeply for and we know can help the team. It’s a matter of when he can help us and how he can help us.”
The biggest question surrounding the US team’s prospects on Tuesday remains their ability to finish chances. Their glaring lack of goalscoring from the No 9 position was a persistent issue throughout qualifying and there’s been little progress thus far in Qatar, where they have broken through just once in 180 minutes.
“We talked about this last time, especially after the [England] game when I said how difficult goals are in the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “It’s hard to come by goals, and that’s what we’ve found. For us, it’s about how we put our players in a position to create chances.
“We’ve been defending really well and that keeps you in games. We know in this game, we’re going to need to score a goal. That’s going to have to happen, so we stay calm. We have a plan and we’ll go out and try to execute that plan.”
So far Berhalter’s choices at central striker have been Norwich City’s Josh Sargent against Wales and the surprise roster inclusion Haji Wright, whose high-energy press of England’s back line on Friday flummoxed their effort to build out of the back.
“I think [the US strikers have] been OK,” Berhalter said, while refusing to tip his hand for Tuesday’s choice. “When we’re evaluating the performance in the first game, Josh had a good chance at the near post and, looking at the second game, Haji was very effective on the defensive end of the game, had some good runs into the channel, very lively. Perhaps there were a couple of times when we could have been more effective with the movement in the penalty box.”
Adding to the Americans’ anxiety is the fact that Iran need only a win or a draw to advance – and reach the knockout stage for the first time in six World Cup appearances – giving them an incentive to pack players behind the ball and dare the US to break them down. But Adams, for his part, doesn’t believe that’s a concern.
“After watching Iran’s last game, I would not expect them to do that because they went after the game and they were looking for three points,” Adams said. “You could tell from the mentality of the group. They were attacking, counter-attacking, doing everything they needed to do, fighting in every single duel, [making] tackles. Every single moment of the game looked like it could be their moment to score a goal.”
Asked whether he felt a win against Iran was necessary to validate the US team’s progress from their catastrophic failure to qualify for the World Cup four years ago, Adams, who is the youngest captain in Qatar, was to the point.
“We have to get out of our group by all means,” he said. “It’s good going into a game knowing there’s only one way to do it, so you’ve got to go after it. It would feel like a success for us when we make it out of the group and then continue on in the tournament.”