When referee Antonio Mateu’s final whistle blew, goalkeeper Matt Turner broke into tears, captain Tyler Adams dropped to his knees and defender Cameron Carter-Vickers threw both hands in the air in celebration and relief.
Christian Pulisic celebrated at the hospital. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
The U.S. needed a victory over Iran to get to the World Cup’s final 16 and it got what it came for Tuesday, but just barely. The 1-0 win didn’t come easily or painlessly, especially for Pulisic, who scored the game’s only goal.
But the Americans, who will face the Netherlands in a knockout game Saturday, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“You're going to have to suffer a lot during these games,” Adams said. “That's part of the game.”
Defender Tim Ream suffered. A month he ago, he wasn’t in the picture for Qatar, having gone more than a year without an appearance for the national team. But when injuries opened up a spot, he stepped in and played all 270 minutes for the unbeaten U.S. (1-0-2) in the group stage, fending off wave and wave of Iranian attackers in the last 15 of those minutes.
“You have to you have to enjoy that adversity, you have to enjoy the pressure that comes with a team throwing everything at you,” he said. “If you don't, it and you start panicking, then bad things happen. I looked around and saw 11 calm guys on the field doing everything they could, putting their bodies on the line to make sure that result. And what a fantastic result it is.”
Walker Zimmerman suffered. A starter in the first two World Cup matches, he was sent to the bench for the start of the most important one. But after coming on in the 82nd minute, he saved the game with a clearance off the line in the closing seconds.
“My role in this particular game was to come in and see the game out. And I was able to do that and help the team,” he said. “I’m just really proud of this group and the way that everyone continues to step up, no matter what their role is.”
Zimmerman’s heads-up play was one of several in the seemingly interminable 10 minutes of stoppage time. Iran, which scored three stoppage-time goals in its first two games, threw everything they had at the U.S., which used everything it had to repel them.
The only goal the U.S. needed came in the 38th minute when Pulisic, charging toward the back post, got a half-step on Iranian defenders Majid Hosseini and Ramin Rezaeian, allowing him to redirect a headed cross from Sergiño Dest into the net from inside the six-yard box.
The build-up to the goal was exceptional, with Adams sending the ball into the center of the field for Weston McKennie, who picked out an unmarked Dest sprinting up the wing. Dest’s cross from just outside the right edge of the six-yard box was so accurate, all Pulisic had to do was stick out his right boot to deflect it in before colliding heavily with Iranian keeper Alireza Beiranvand.
“We talked about it for the game. That exactly was how we were going to score,” Ream said. “Christian was told before the game ‘crush that back post’ and that's exactly what he did.”
Then he got crushed. At halftime he was taken to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a pelvic contusion.
“He'll do anything for this team,” Adams said “in order for us to win.”
Pulisic’s status is listed as day-to-day, his availability for Saturday uncertain. But McKennie said it really doesn’t matter. Suffering has made the players on this roster into a team, a team that bigger than any one individual. When one goes down, another steps up to take his place.
“We have 26 players here and every single player is wanting to lay their body on the line to make sure this team successful,” McKennie said. “A lot of people have doubted us, and we continue to prove them wrong.”
No more so than goalkeeper Matt Turner. A walk-on in college who didn’t get off the bench his first two seasons in MLS, Turner now plays in the English Premier League for Arsenal. Second on the national team’s depth chart to Zack Steffen, Turner became the starter when Steffen was left off the World Cup roster.
In Qatar, he hasn’t conceded a goal from the run of play, becoming the first American keeper to post two shutouts in the same World Cup in 92 years.
“This is just an unbelievable experience for me,” he said Tuesday. “Almost everything is a carbon copy of the feelings that I felt as a fan in 2010. And to be able to have a say in the result that gets us through to the next round, it was just very emotional for a lot of reasons.”
The suffering, he decided, was worth it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.