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The U.S. meets Iran in a must-win World Cup match

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. men's soccer team has advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup. They held on for a nail-biting victory against Iran today, winning the game 1-0. NPR's Tom Goldman attended the game in Qatar. Hey, Tom?

(SOUNDBITE OF FANS WHIRRING)

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. So squeaking out a win. How did it go down?

GOLDMAN: First of all, I want to apologize for the loud noise. They appear to be drying the field. It was a very emotional, wet field after. Well, we...

SHAPIRO: From tears, or what?

GOLDMAN: Yeah. From tears - well, Iranian tears, yeah. The U.S. came into this match knowing it had to win to advance, and the team played like it from the start. By far the aggressor, the U.S. had eight first half shots on goal to Iran's zero. And then in the 38th minute, the U.S. finally broke through on a beautiful play that started with this long pass over the top by midfielder Weston McKennie to defender Sergino Dest on the right flank, who headed the ball perfectly back to the middle to a streaking Christian Pulisic. So imagine this boom, boom, boom. Pulisic then finished the play with a right-footed boot into the Iran net. Now, the U.S. fans obviously roared in ecstasy, but they quickly quieted down when it was obvious Pulisic was hurt and he was laying face down in the Iran goal. He got up, played the rest of the half, but he was subbed out the start of the second half.

In that second half, the U.S. defense, which has been excellent throughout the tournament, did enough to hold the lead. There were a couple of very close calls late in the match when Iran almost scored, but the U.S. held them off. And afterwards, Coach Gregg Berhalter talked about the end of the match being what he was really proud of because - and I'm quoting here - "it's the mark of determination and extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and not buckle". He said he's really proud of them.

SHAPIRO: OK. So the goal came with a price. Do you know how badly Pulisic is injured, and how essential is he to the future of the team?

GOLDMAN: Very essential. I mean, he's kind of the star of this team. He was taken to the hospital as a precaution. He was feeling some dizziness. U.S. soccer only says that it's an abdominal injury. Gregg Berhalter, the coach, was asked about Pulisic's availability for the next match on Saturday, and Berhalter didn't answer the question.

SHAPIRO: When the U.S. plays Iran, there's bound to be geopolitical overtones. There was some drama earlier this week. Tell us about the atmosphere surrounding the game.

GOLDMAN: You know, I circled the stadium, Ari, for about 90 minutes before the match, saw a lot of collegiality between Iranian and American fans, lots of trying to out-chant each other. I saw no confrontations, especially between Iranian fans, which has marred Iran's match against Wales fans protesting the Iranian government's crackdown on protests in Iran that have been going on for a couple of months against fans supporting the government. I saw none of that here and didn't hear any reports. Maybe the huge security presence at Al Thumama Stadium discouraged any confrontations.

SHAPIRO: So the next U.S. match is Saturday. What's ahead?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, the U.S. is in the knockout round, which was a major goal. You know, it's validation for the rebuilding Berhalter has overseen the last four years after the U.S. failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018. So Americans play the Netherlands Saturday. It's a tough European team. Berhalter said, about being in the knockout round, it's great to be in this knockout format where it's not about points anymore. It's simply about winning and advancing. He said the team relishes this, and it's an opportunity for his team to keep grinding and stick together...

SHAPIRO: OK.

GOLDMAN: ...And enjoy the experience.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Tom Goldman in Doha, Qatar, where they are drying out the field behind him after a dramatic U.S. win...

GOLDMAN: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: ...Against Iran. Thanks.

GOLDMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.