United States midfielder Weston McKennie floats a ball into the opposition penalty area after spotting an overlapping run by Sergino Dest.
Dest gets a head to it and finds Christian Pulisic to tap home the goal that gave Team USA a 1-0 win over Iran on Nov. 29 in the final match of the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
This win, and that goal, secured the United States Men’s National Team a place in the Round of 16 at the World Cup and gave the nation only its sixth-ever appearance in the knockout rounds. Though the team later lost to the Dutch and was eliminated, the performance of this exceedingly young team — one of the youngest in the world — bodes well for the future.
And of course, it was only right for 24-year-old Pulisic to be the hero for the USMNT.
Since his debut in 2016, at the age of 17, he’s been called upon by the national team to be their talisman to carry them to new heights. And for the most part, he’s done that.
But these are different times for U.S. soccer.
The mountain of pressure that was placed upon the now 24-year-old back then was the result of him being one of a kind at the time, but his emergence paved the way for many young Americans like him to make a name for themselves in the world soccer landscape.
The USMNT can now count on the talents of Giovanni Reyna, Tyler Adams, Timothy Weah, Yunus Musah, Brenden Aaronson, Dest and McKennie to share the pressure with Pulisic.
Thus, giving way to the United States “golden generation.”
“Honestly this team helps me so much to take the pressure off,” Pulisic said. “A couple of years ago maybe I felt like I needed to do more, but with these guys, I don’t feel that way at all. I know they have my back.”
The remarkable growth of this national team’s talent pool all culminated during the group stage at this year’s World Cup.
A tournament they went into with the second-youngest squad.
The failure to qualify for Russia 2018 made the moment they kicked off their opening match against Wales on Nov. 21 that much greater, and the moment Weah gave the stars and stripes the lead that much sweeter.
“When everyone’s fired up and ready to go, those are the times that we’ve played at our best.” McKennie said prior to the match.
The USMNT opened their reintroduction to the world stage with an electric first half taking a 1-0 lead into halftime against the Welsh but being the second young team in the tournament is going to come with growing pains of an inexperienced group.
USA defender Walker Zimmerman fouled Wales winger Gareth Bale in the penalty area in the 80th minute of the game and gave away a penalty that Bale would eventually convert.
The game ended 1-1 and both teams would take one point from for the draw.
The disappointing end put a cloud over an, otherwise, strong performance from a young team that had never played on this stage.
But there were plenty of positives for the U.S. to grow from, and none bigger than the emergence of Tyler Adams, who was named team captain prior to the match against Wales.
“Anyone throughout our leadership council can wear that armband and represent us with pride and represent us in the right way,” Adams said after being named captain.
He came the team’s heart on and off the field where he would be the rock in the midfield that was dictate the tempo of the game and the team’s representative to the media.
A role that would show why nobody was better suited from the captain’s armband.
The U.S. turned their attention towards their next match: a meeting with world football giants England.
The talk from the media prior to the game was about how this young team would fare, physically and mentally, against a strong world power in the sport.
Adams spoke proudly of his team and assured the media that there was no mental challenge for the USMNT.
“I wouldn’t say there’s many things that intimidate me other than spiders, so it’s fine for me.” Adams said. “We want to show what we’re capable of and that US Soccer is growing and developing in the right way.”
Team USA would go on the play the game of their lives against England, holding them to a 0-0 draw and showing the world that this wasn’t the same U.S. National Team of years prior.
This team was here to compete.
The U.S. outshot the English and created more dangerous scoring opportunities, and the fanbase was left feeling like their team should’ve won the match. That’s something that never been able to be said about this team.
However, while they impressed the world by holding England off, the USMNT still failed to win and sat on two points from two draws.
Leaving everything to be decided on the final matchday against Iran.
And, if there wasn’t already enough pressure on the team to get a result the team’s social media pages did them no favors.
Prior to the match, U.S. soccer uploaded an image in which they edited out the emblem of the Iranian flag and referred to the nation as just “Iran” rather than the “Islamic Republic of Iran” in a move of solidarity with the people protesting Iran’s government.
However, many in the Iranian media did not see it that way and saw as a sign of disrespect to their country. The Iranian Federation eventually asked FIFA to kick the U.S. out of the World Cup, FIFA do not go through with the request.
So, they arrived at the pre-match press conference prepared to grill Berhalter and Adams.
The Iranian press asked the two about the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf, immigration policies and even systemic racism in the United States.
One reporter scolded Tyler Adams for his mispronunciation of “Iran” and asked about his thoughts on representing a country with a history of racism as an African-American.
“My apologies on the mispronunciation of your country,” Adams said. “That being said, there’s discrimination everywhere you go. One thing that I’ve learned, especially from living abroad in the past years and having to fit in in different cultures and kind of assimilating to different cultures, is that in the U.S. we’re continuing to make progress every single day.”
After that tense showdown between the U.S. and Iranian media, there was still a soccer game to be played.
Like the two previous matches, Team USA came out on the front and dictated the game.
They created chances in bunches early until Sergiño Dest found Pulisic to open the scoring, and Pulisic paid a heavy price to get on the end of that pass sustaining a pelvic contusing that sent him to hospital after colliding with Iran goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
Pulisic would not finish the game after this but assured everyone he’d be ready for their next match after the team eventually pulled off the victory.
“I didn’t get hit in the balls, but I’m alright,” Pulisic said.
That goal was the difference in the win that secured Team USA a place in the Round of 16.
The greatest accomplishment of the Berhalter era.
This win gave flashbacks to 2010 when the U.S. won in the final game to advance to the knockout rounds off a goal from Landon Donovan against Algeria in the dying embers of the game, and Pulisic was asked about how it felt to have his own “Donovan moment.”
“I’m hoping I haven’t had that yet to be honest, I’m hoping it’s in front of me,” Pulisic said.
It very well may be as that win set up a win-or-go-home game against the Netherlands in the knockout rounds.
The Americans had as good a chance as ever to advance to their first quarter-final since 2002 based off their level of play in the group stage and the Netherlands playing at a level that leaves much to be desired.
But the USMNT showed signs of being one of the youngest teams at the World Cup.
The Netherlands, under their experienced coach in Louis van Gaal, were tactically set up perfectly to counter Team USA’s weaknesses on their way to a 3-1 win in the Round of 16 that saw the U.S. get eliminated from the World Cup.
The Dutch lured the young U.S. squad into a false sense of security by allowing them to possess the ball and believe they had control of the game, just to hit them on a counter attack for Memphis Depay’s opening goal.
The USMNT hadn’t faced being down a goal during the World Cup to that point, and they responded to that like a visibly rattled team that hasn’t faced adversity.
A second half goal from striker Haji Wright gave the U.S. a short-lived glimmer of hope before Denzel Dumfries put the Netherlands ahead 3-1 and sealed the game.
That ended an inspiring run from Team USA.
Messages of support poured in from all over the United States from American proud of the display their young team gave them on the biggest stage, including messages from President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
This team with an average age of 25.2 years had an impressive showing at the 2022 World Cup just four years before they host the tournament on home soil.
While it was a disappointing end this year, Team USA’s core will hit its peak as most of them will be around 24-29 years old in 2026.
The USMNT will be back to host the next World Cup, and they look to be serious challengers that year.