It was never going to be easy. Then again, neither has the grinding pressure of being American soccer's chosen one. But when the right opportunity arrived, Christian Pulisic surrendered his body for his team and finally took hold of his signature moment on the international stage.
With the temperature of this geopolitical proxy war between the United States and Iran at the Middle East's first World Cup having risen to a boiling point, Pulisic turned the volume down with a goal the United States desperately had to have, making the difference in a tense and riveting win-or-go-home showdown for the Americans. When Sergiño Dest directed a header toward goal off Weston McKennie's floated pass in the 38th minute, an onrushing Pulisic burst through a thicket of white shirts and struck home what proved to be the winner while barreling into the Iranian keeper. Pulisic then lay sprawled in the goalmouth for nearly four minutes.
He was taken to hospital at half-time with dizziness and to receive a precautionary abdominal scan. But once the US held off a heart-pounding Iranian onslaught late in the second half, sealing their progress to the knockout stage and a date with the Netherlands on Saturday, the fallen winger joined the rollicking locker-room celebration over FaceTime and was already back at the team hotel by the time they arrived. US Soccer later said Pulisic is "day-to-day" and had suffered a "pelvic contusion".
"Christian makes those runs," USA manager Gregg Berhalter said after the game. "That's what he does. That's the special quality he has. As soon as the ball is wide, he goes in with intensity into the penalty box and good things happen and you score goals. We've seen at Chelsea he's scored a number of goals on the same types of runs. He crashes the box and makes it really difficult for defenders with his change of pace."
The 24-year-old from Hershey, Pennsylvania, remains the frontman of a romper room that's been breathlessly touted as America's golden generation. More than half of Berhalter's 26-man squad compete in the world's top five leagues, including Pulisic (Chelsea), Dest (Milan), McKennie (Juventus) and captain Tyler Adams (Leeds United). It's a set-up designed at least in part for the next World Cup, when the US will be co-hosts and today's core players will be in their presumptive primes, even if Berhalter resists the notion. "We want to build a ton of momentum going into 2026," he said last week. "But it all starts now."
And how. Berhalter has selected the three youngest lineups of all the games played in Qatar and Tuesday's was the youngest one yet with an average age of under 25 years old: the first ever American side at World Cup where all 11 starters featured for European clubs. Each of them levelled up on a night when the thorny political underpinnings were uncomfortably thrust to the fore. The atmosphere in and around many of the stadiums at the Qatar World Cup has been oddly flat. That was not the case on Tuesday, to the extent it almost felt like a different tournament altogether. It was clear outside the Al Thumama Stadium more than three hours before kickoff that US fans would be vastly outnumbered by the Iranian supporters and the many neutrals brought into their fold. They turned the 44,400-seat venue into a cauldron of noise: a neutral site in name only.
Coming off a draw with Wales that felt like a loss and another with England that felt like a win, the United States were always going to face an uphill climb in the group-stage finale, needing three points against Asia's highest-ranked team. Iran would almost certainly progress with a draw, meaning they could pack players behind the ball in the type of low block the United States have consistently struggled against. But the hostile roars and ear-splitting cacophony of vuvuzelas and drums made it that much harder. Welcome to Great Satan v Iran II, a rematch a quarter-century in the making.
The first half hour unfolded on a knife's edge, with the counter-attacking threat from Iran's forward pairing of Sardar Azmoun and Mehdi Taremi looming over the US team's promising start, but the Americans were not in awe of the occasion. The itinerant Adams took command in midfield. McKennie made the lung-busting box-to-box runs that have become his calling card. The prodigious Yunah Musah, celebrating his 20th birthday, dribbled out of pressure and fearlessly ran at defenders.
By the 35th minute they'd already peppered the Iran goal with as many shots as in the entire Wales game, but the agita mounted with each missed finishing touch. Until that moment. For all the precocious talent in their ranks - so young and ambitious, unscarred by failure, with the note-perfect blend of confidence and humility - Pulisic remains the bellwether; as he goes, so go the Americans. It's not an accident the US team have won eight straight matches in which he's scored.
"What I saw from the group was a tremendous amount of focus, especially leading into the game: you could tell they were locked in," Berhalter said. "The end of the game is really what I'm most proud of because it's the mark of determination and an extreme amount of effort and resiliency to hang in there and get the win and not buckle. You know, that's the first time in 92 years that we've gotten two shutouts at a World Cup, so the boys are doing something right."
It's the fifth time the United States have reached the knockouts since 1994 - which puts them in some elite company - but this one means so much more after the gloomy nadir of five years ago when they failed to qualify for Russia with a dour defeat at Trinidad & Tobago. Pulisic is one of only four holdovers from that traumatic night in Couva and the wait surely makes his maiden World Cup goal that much sweeter.
And now? The Americans enter the business end of the tournament on a tailwind of confidence, wanting for goals but having yet to concede from open play. Berhalter, who will forever be remembered by supporters as the player whose left foot nearly sent the US into the semi-finals back in 2002, is confident this team can follow that path.
"From here, anything can happen," Berhalter said. "All we need to do is play one game at a time and there's no need to even project how far this team can go, because the next match is against Holland and that's our main focus. It's great to be in this knockout format. We relish this. It's an opportunity for our guys to keep grinding and stick together and enjoy this experience."