Fittingly, it took “Captain America’’ to save America on Tuesday in Qatar.
He gave up his body — and risked possibly the rest of his World Cup — to do it.
Christian Pulisic, the dynamic and indispensable 24-year-old American midfielder, kicked U.S. soccer into the knockout round of 16 with the only goal of a taut 1-0 U.S. victory over Iran in the third and final Group B match that America had to win outright or go home.
Pulisic didn’t even get to witness live the finished product of the biggest victory for U.S. soccer in eight years, because he suffered an abdominal injury while scoring the goal after crashing into Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand and taking a knee to his midsection.
He was brought to an area hospital for observation while his teammates hung on for dear life in a tense second half.
About an hour after the match, Pulisic tweeted a picture of himself in a hospital bed with the message: “So f–king proud of my guys. I’ll be ready Saturday don’t worry.’’ That was by followed by four emojis of hands clasped in prayer and three hearts.
The Pulisic goal was symbolic of the end result, because he gave up his body to get to a Sergiño Dest cross on front of the goal in the 38th minute.
That hellbent Pulisic effort — his body be damned — was emblematic of the way the U.S. played this match from the opening kickoff in that it was all about advancing out of the group stage at whatever cost.
The pressure in this match was excruciating.
It was that way all day — right into the agonizing 100th minute of the match with the American players, gassed from giving everything they had and from the stress that came with trying to hold onto the most important lead they’ve ever held in their soccer lives.
When it was over, the first thought to come to mind — other than hope for the prognosis for Pulisic to be positive — is that the U.S. team may never play a match with the kind of intense pressure that came with Tuesday’s.
The Americans, who until Tuesday’s exorcism were still living with failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, would have been excoriated had they not been able to get by Iran and get to the knockout stage.
Now with that out of the way, this should liberate the Americans, who should now be in house-money mode.
Who knows? Maybe the U.S. will — ahem — break out and score two goals against the Netherlands in their round of 16 match Saturday despite the fact they managed only two in the three-game group stage.
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This is meant to take absolutely nothing away from the U.S. national team, but the fact is it’s exactly where it was supposed to be all along after the group stage. Only No. 5 England, which also advanced, was ranked higher in the group than the Americans, who are ranked 16th.
Now, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who hasn’t held back from publicly stating his intention that America is an advancing soccer nation capable of beating the big boys, gets his chance to show that he’s right.
The fact is the Americans were the better team than all three of their opponents in the group matches, tying Wales 1-1 and England 0-0 before Tuesday.
No one is more deserving of this than Pulisic, who took the 2018 failure to get to the World Cup the hardest. He was 19 at the time and a rising star hoping to the reach his sport’s pinnacle for the first time. He took it personally.
Pulisic, all those years ago, said, “I don’t think it’s ever going to completely go away until I’m in a World Cup.’’
Well, on cue and on brand, he’s been the Americans’ best player in this — his first — World Cup.
“Going back to him not qualifying for the last World Cup and being here now and qualifying us through … that’s just the work of God,’’ U.S. forward Tim Weah, a New York City native, said.
“We’re very thankful he threw his body in there,’’ U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie, who delivered the incredible long-ball to Dest so Dest could head the cross onto Pulisic’s right foot.
“A night of dreams,’’ Weah called Tuesday. “I always say it’s us against the world. No one believed the U.S. could play good football. We’re just here trying to show the world. It’s a beautiful day.’’
McKennie said the U.S., the youngest team in this World Cup, “wanted it on our shoulders.’’
“We love this type of stuff,’’ McKennie said. “We love the pressure and the excitement. We’re a young team. We have our own swagger. We did it today.’’
Yes, they did. And now there’s more to get.
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