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Anatomy of a goal: Breaking down Christian Pulisic’s heroic, game-winning World Cup finish

Thanks to a goal from Christian Pulisic, the United States men’s national team beat Iran on Tuesday and advanced to the Round of 16 at the World Cup. Here’s how the U.S. scored their goal.

4 min read

Quick Hits

  • Thanks to a goal from Christian Pulisic, the United States men’s national team beat Iran on Tuesday and advanced to the Round of 16 at the World Cup
  • Here’s how the U.S. scored their goal – and how they beat Iran

With all to play for in their final match of the World Cup’s group stage, Gregg Berhalter trusted the United States to dominate out of the gate. The USMNT needed three points against Iran to progress to the Round of 16 – and they got them in style.

The breakthrough came in the 38th minute by way of Christian Pulisic, but it was the culmination of a gorgeous sequence of passes and a considerate tactical approach.

Throughout the first half, Iran sat deep in a 4-3-2-1 or 4-5-1 shape that often became very narrow. Carlos Quieroz’s team only needed a draw to advance and was willing to cede possession and shell up in the defensive portion of the pitch to earn the necessary point. Meanwhile, Berhalter attacked in what was effectively a 2-3-5 or a 3-2-5 shape. Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest were encouraged to advance up the flanks and make overlapping runs; Tyler Adams often sat between the central defenders to allow for controlled build-out.

Variations on these trends led to the opening strike for the United States.

THE GOAL

The go-ahead goal began with a typically controlled spell of possession in the midfield. Adams, the deepest-lying central player, advanced with the ball into the Iran half. Meanwhile, Robinson bombed up the left side. Together, their runs dragged the opposition deep into their own half and moved the Iranian midfield towards the USMNT’s left wing.

Crucially, Weston McKennie stayed in the center rather than make an underlapping run behind Robinson. He noticed that Iran was willing to sink low, bided his time, and found space as a result.

After a series of passes between Adams and Robinson, McKennie finally received the ball. The action between that trio on the left side was matched by right-to-center runs from Yunus Musah and Tim Weah. Their motion further compressed Iran, drawing Quieroz’s left back and left midfielder towards the middle. Weah’s run had the added effect of driving the opposing center backs forward, which you can see down below.

The same still image also shows moves from Sergino Dest and Pulisic. Throughout the World Cup, Dest had been tasked with sitting deeper at right back than Robinson on the left. Berhalter, recognizing the need for numbers in attack in the Iran matchup, encouraged Dest to attack more aggressively, as seen in this run up the sideline.

Pulisic’s foray up the middle took advantage of the momentum of Iran’s defenders. As the Iranians moved inward and upward, the Chelsea midfielder carved in the exact opposite direction. This gave him a physical edge as he cut into the box and the Iran players had to completely reverse course to try and recover to the speedy Pulisic.

From there, McKennie launched a switch over the Iranian defense in the direction of Dest. Musah and Weah’s central repositioning brough Iran narrow, so the diagonal pass had ample room to meet the right back.

Pulisic continued to cut towards the heart of the box all the while, laying his body on the line to meet Dest’s eventual cross and put the United States ahead. Both players had already beaten Iran and slid behind the defensive line thanks to the team-wide set of runs.

Berhalter was only able to employ his fullbacks so aggressively and allow Adams to move from the No. 6 spot into the final third because of how well Tim Ream and Cameron Carter-Vickers controlled transition moves. The performance of the two center backs underlied the aggression of what could turn into a nine-man attack. In every way, the first half was a tactical triumph for Berhalter, who brought Carter-Vickers into the lineup thanks to his experience in similar situations for ball-dominant Celtic.

The impressive defensive effort in the second half was crucial, but the beauty of the USMNT’s winning goal should steal the headlines. This team has shown flashes of brilliance against both Wales and England, and Pulisic’s finish was a defining moment of catharsis. If the momentum from that goal and a holistic performance against Iran continues versus the Netherlands and beyond, then the United States could just make a run.

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