Premium: The Young Americans
On a night of powerful emotions and images, the USMNT beat Iran to advance to the World Cup knockout rounds and continued winning new fans inside and outside the United States.
DOHA, Qatar — World Cup elimination games produce moments and images that resonate with the most soul-stirring parts of our humanity. And when the United States is involved, they create untold numbers of new American soccer fans and memories that remain forever burned into our collective emotional hard drive.
You didn’t even have to be a soccer supporter to feel all those things about the U.S.’s heart-stopping 1-0 win over Iran on Tuesday, a victory that rewarded a young American team becoming globally known before our eyes, that honored a brave group of Iranian players and set up a Round of 16 showdown for the U.S. against the Netherlands on Saturday.
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This World Cup just got turned up to 11, and the U.S. is a big reason why.
You saw the game, and we already digested in written and audio forms the talking points from what took place over 90 minutes on the field—plus nine minutes and 53 seconds of the most agonizing second-half added time you could ever imagine. But what came out afterward in the wee hours of Qatar time dialed up the emotion even more and launched this game into the annals of American soccer classics.
This U.S. team is starting the youngest lineup of any squad at the World Cup, and yet the emotional IQ of these Baby Yanks is off the charts. Take the scene following the final whistle between U.S. right back Antonee Robinson, 25, and Iran’s Ramin Rezaeian, who had played a solid game despite being beaten (barely) by Christian Pulisic to the ball for the decisive goal.
There are no rival governments in this moment, no posturing, no artifice at all. It’s just a scene of shared respect and humanity and empathy, and it’s the image of this World Cup so far.
Sports and politics will always mix, as we most certainly know by now, but that combination can bring people together, not just divide them. Tim Weah, the 22-year-old winger who’s having a standout World Cup, honored the Iranian players and people in an Instagram Stories post after the game in which he acknowledged that the sport he plays has “always been more than just football to me.”
The Iranian players have been in an impossible position during this World Cup. Nationwide protests for women’s rights against their authoritarian government, and police-led killings in response, have rocked the country since September, when a 20-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini died in custody after being detained by Iran’s morality police for not wearing a hijab in accordance with regime standards.
Iran’s players responded on Matchday 1 of the World Cup by not singing their national anthem, causing the Iranian regime to insist that they sing it for Games 2 and 3. Meanwhile, CNN reported that families of the team had been threatened with imprisonment and torture if the players failed to “behave” ahead of the U.S. game.
As you might expect, Iran’s Islamic regime tried to use the team’s victory over Wales in Game 2 to its advantage, and Iranian state-affiliated media put on a surreal show at the U.S. press conference on Monday, grilling U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter on the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and 23-year-old Tyler Adams (the youngest team captain at the World Cup) over discrimination faced by Black Americans.
Adams responded in the most disarming way possible, showing the respect and humility in front of a global audience that was missing from the hostile questioner. By Wednesday, the Adams video had more than 6 million views.
In the end, the Iranian regime was taking Ls for more than just that. In Sanandaj, the Kurdish Iranian city where Mahsa Amini lived, citizens celebrated the U.S. scoring against Iran:
And some of those celebrations extended to the capital of Tehran:
The U.S. team had its own celebrations. Upon returning to the Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel in Doha, the USMNT was greeted in a joyous scene by celebrating hotel workers and a special reveler: Pulisic, the 24-year-old winger who had scored the winning goal and sacrificed his body in the process. The U.S. superstar had come out of the game at halftime due to a “pelvic contusion” and had made a precautionary visit to the hospital. He vowed in a Snapchat post that he’ll be ready for Saturday.
But the most lasting image of Pulisic will be the utter joy on his face as he welcomed his triumphant U.S. teammates back to the hotel. Pulisic has often looked as if the weight of the world is on his shoulders, and seeing him exult at the sight of his teammates showed how fully he and everyone in this U.S. outfit is committed to the common cause.
I hope this story doesn’t read like a social media roundup, and moving forward I’ll return to more traditional magazine-style journalism covering this U.S. team and the World Cup. But for all of social media’s ills—and there are plenty—the stories communicated on those platforms after the U.S. victory were something powerful and resonant.
I have friends my age in Brazil who tell me how much the 1994 U.S. World Cup team influenced them, how they viewed those American players as the epitome of cool, players like Tony Meola and Cobi Jones and Alexi Lalas. Only the World Cup can give a U.S. team that kind of global exposure, and everything these Americans are doing on and off the field right now is earning them fans, not just in the U.S. but around the world. They’re playing good soccer, and they’re winning hearts and minds.
The U.S. will be an underdog against the Netherlands on Saturday. But these Yanks will fear nothing, and they’ll have the increasing support of people inside and outside their own country. That’s the power of the World Cup.
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