DOHA, Qatar -- Less than 24 hours from kickoff, the drama surrounding the United States men's national team's match against Iran on Tuesday has reached fever pitch. Not only is there everything to play for on the field, there is a growing discontent between the geopolitical rivals away from the pitch.
Throughout this World Cup, discussions involving Iran have revolved around conditions back home, where 410 protesters have been killed in the two months of unrest after the death of a 22-year-old woman while in custody of the country's morality police. In an attempt to show solidarity with those protesters, the US Soccer Federation briefly displayed Iran's national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic, resulting in fierce backlash, the Iranian government accusing the federation of removing the name of God from the national flag.
It hasn't helped the matter that ex-USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann criticized Iranian football culture after their 2-0 win over Wales on Friday.
That's the backdrop Tuesday's group stage finale will play out in front of. On the field, the two countries will be playing for a place in the knockout rounds. The US sit third in Group B on two points, after draws against Wales and England, and must beat Carlos Queiroz's side if they're to make the round of 16. Second-placed Iran, meanwhile, will advance to the group stage with any result other than defeat.
This match is shaping up to be one of the most intense contests of the group stage. So how will it play out once the game kicks off? ESPN asked Jeff Carlisle and Gabriel Tan to break down how these two teams match up.
What has worked for the US? And what hasn't?
The US have been outstanding defensively so far, which has been a pleasant surprise. The center of the defense was thought to be a weak spot, but Tim Ream's insertion into the lineup alongside Walker Zimmerman has worked wonders. They haven't done it alone either, with Tyler Adams winning an impressive 85.7% of his tackles. As a team, the US have been effective with their pressing, flummoxing England, and Matt Turner has been solid in goal. The only hiccup -- and yes, it was a big one -- was the late penalty Zimmerman conceded against Wales.
The big issue for the Americans has been their inability to find the net on a consistent basis. Manager Gregg Berhalter has felt that his team has created chances but hasn't finished them off. There is some truth to that in that the US are underperforming in terms of expected goals (xG) (1.42) compared with actual goals scored (1). The reality is that the xG mark ranks 26th out of 32 teams in the World Cup, and the US are tied for 15th in terms of chance creation with 14.
A big problem is that the US have struggled to execute in transition, with the final pass often going awry. The Americans have had no success on set pieces either, which was thought to be a strength of this team. Against Wales, this was down to some poor set piece deliveries by Christian Pulisic, although this was rectified against England. -- Carlisle
What's worked for Iran? And what hasn't?
A nightmare start to the tournament saw Iran fall in a lopsided 6-2 loss to England, and the one thing that clearly did not work was Queiroz's overly cautious approach, considering the number of goals they ended up conceding despite fielding a 5-4-1 formation filled with defensive-minded players. The fact that the Three Lions were on song that night as well did not help Iran's cause, but the outing was not without positives as star striker Mehdi Taremi showed what he is capable of with two goals.
Four days later, a much-improved Iran showed what they are made of as they dominated Wales, even if they left it late to claim a 2-0 win courtesy of a couple of injury-time strikes. With the two-pronged attack of Taremi and Azmoun always offering an option, and with Iran's wide players often breaking with pace and stretching the play, the Welsh defense was carved apart, and the Iranians might feel they could have won by an even bigger margin.
The difference between when Iran are on the back foot and when they want to attack with intent is strikingly apparent. -- Tan
Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman offer their support to the Iranian people after US Soccer removed social media posts including the Iranian flag without the Islamic Republic symbol.
Where this game will be won and lost
I think two parts of the field will be key. On the defensive side, the US will need to snuff out Iran's transition opportunities. Since Iran need only a draw to advance, Team Melli are expected to sit back and try to absorb pressure and then hit their opponents on the break. That will put a premium on the US making sure they stay locked in on Iran's attackers, even when the Americans have the ball.
On the attacking side, the opposition penalty area is where the US will need to be much better, in terms of delivery and finishing. It is also a game that is crying out for the technical ability of Giovanni Reyna. Whether that means starting him at striker or out wide remains to be seen. Berhalter said on Monday that he wasn't looking to stick with his three strikers -- Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Haji Wright -- but given the stakes involved, he needs to figure out a way to get his best attacking players on the field, and with there likely to be little space behind the defense, that means Reyna's clean touches will and creativity will be needed. -- Carlisle
Queiroz is aware that he has two top-class strikers in Taremi and Azmoun. In particular, the former already showed what he can do against quality opposition in England, and he is no one-hit wonder either, having scored five times for FC Porto in this season's Champions League alone.
The key to victory on Tuesday, as it was against Wales, could just be ensuring both of them receive a steady supply of chances in one-on-one situations. Although both are decent in the air, Iran could be better off being more intricate in the final third, as it worked well for them against the English and the Welsh, whose backlines have physical profiles arguably similar to the United States'.
Still, to start working the ball in and around the opposition area, they will have to be in possession first, and that is where the engine room battle between United States duo Adams and Weston McKennie and Iran's Ezatolahi and Ahmad Nourollahi could prove pivotal. There is also the matter of curbing the influence of Pulisic and, having rotated between his right-backs, it will be interesting to see whether Queiroz sticks with goal-scoring Ramin Rezaeian or reverts to more defensive-minded Sadegh Moharrami. -- Tan
US 2-1: I think the US will get it done, but by the thinnest of margins. Look for McKennie to get one goal, if not both, via a set piece. -- Carlisle
Iran 2-1: Team Melli will have no shortage of motivation to rise to the occasion, and, for the second tournament running, they actually have the quality to back it up. Last time out, Spain and Portugal proved too much to overcome in the end, but Iran will believe that -- having seen off Wales -- they can do the same against the US to reach the round of 16. -- Tan