The United States men’s national team enters its final group stage match at the World Cup against Iran with only a win being good enough to take them through to the Round of 16. This is a familiar situation for the Americans as it was the exact same scenario they faced in 2010 when Landon Donovan scored an iconic last-second goal to secure the victory.
Unlike that famous day, the U.S. will be facing a side that likely only needs a draw — assuming Wales doesn’t get a shock win over England — to earn second place in the group. Commonsense tells us that Iran will likely implement an extremely conservative game plan in hopes of limiting their exposure on defense.
For the USA, this could be bad news for an already sputtering attack with a history of struggling to break down teams who play this style of soccer.
The phrase “parking the bus” in soccer is looked at in a negative connotation as it signal a team’s intent to only focus on not conceding a goal rather than attempting to score one. However, despite it being frowned upon by, it’s quite an effective measure for teams who are able to withstand the pressure. Iran manager Carlos Queiroz is an experienced and well-traveled manager who undoubtedly isn’t afraid to pull out this tactic if he thinks it gives his side the best chance at reaching the knockout stage of a World Cup.
In seven of their last 10 matches in World Cup qualifying, Iran won and kept a clean sheet in the process. It’s clear that they are more than capable of defending in an organized manner. This is something Gregg Berhalter’s team has struggled mightily with in qualifying, especially when matches aren’t played on home soil. During the Concacaf qualifying cycle the U.S. were shutout five times in seven matches away from home. The fact that the Americans must score a goal to earn advancement in the tournament has to be a point of worry.
Despite the numbers and possibility of facing a conservative opponent, USA captain Tyler Adams isn’t expecting Iran to simply go all defense.
“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. 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, tackles. Every single moment of the game looked like it could be their moment to score a goal. So I’m not expecting them to do that. We know that it’s a knockout game. And of course we have to attack. I mean, I’m not the coach of their team, so I’m not exactly sure what they’re going to do, but based off of last game I’m expecting them to come after it.” — Tyler Adams speaking at the USA vs. Iran pre-match press conference
With just one goal in the opening two matches of the World Cup, the onus is on Berhalter to find the right lineup combination to unlock what will surely be a stout Iran defense. One possible option that many outside observers have clamored for is the inclusion of Giovanni Reyna. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder has a knack for breaking down defenses either with his playmaking passing abilities or on the dribble. Reyna has only amassed seven total minutes off the bench despite his immense talent. Could this be his time to finally make the difference from the opening kickoff? If he’s not included and the U.S. continue to struggle to create and score goals, major questions will be asked of Berhalter’s selection process.
No matter how the USMNT sets the lineup to score goals, the pressure is clearly on them to get the job done. They will be facing a team with a history of playing tight, low-scoring games with a mentality that keeping a clean sheet is enough to see them advance. Can they find the right formula to break through the Iran defense and put up a goal or two? If they can’t, their tournament will be over.