Christian Pulisic gave it everything he had.
There is no other way to put it.
This can be taken to mean he put all his skill, energy, desire and dreams into that single moment, the moment that advanced the United States men’s national team to the Round of 16 at the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which is the customary dividing line for American soccer between success and disaster.
Or it can be taken to mean something far more consequential.
Let’s put it this way: When Landon Donovan scored the “Go-Go USA” goal in 2010 against Algeria to advance the United States men’s national team to the World Cup round of 16, he got to run to the corner flag and celebrate with all his teammates, both those involved in the game and those who ran down the sideline from the bench.
MORE: How the USA beat Iran to make World Cup knockouts
When Pulisic scored his goal to secure a 1-0 victory over Iran, he collided with Alireza Beiranvand and took the full force of the goalkeeper’s leg to his manhood. It’s hard to imagine every man on the planet has not had this happen at least once, but the hit Pulisic took there seemed to contain the force of all of them combined. And then he played on.
🚨 Christian Pulisic has an abdominal injury. He has been taken to hospital for a scan.
— Ben Jacobs (@JacobsBen) November 29, 2022
Berhalter confirms Pulisic was taken to the hospital, saying it was “precaution”. Berhalter continues that he was experiencing some dizziness
— Meg Swanick (@Meg_Swanick) November 29, 2022
“Wow. I think the first half we showed what we could do soccer-wise. We played a really good first half,” head coach Gregg Berhalter told Fox Sports. “Second half, we showed what we could do determination-wise. The guys grinded. They gave every single ounce of energy. And we’re undefeated going into the next round.”
MORE: Latest Christian Pulisic injury update
The goal itself was a wonder, flowing in the 38th minute from a perfect pass floated forward by Weston McKennie to Sergino Dest at the right side of the penalty area, then a sweet header to the front of the goal that Pulisic hunted with a fury and sent into the back of the net with his right leg. Then came the collision.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 29, 2022
It took several minutes of attention from the U.S. Soccer medical staff just to get Pulisic out of the Iran goal and over to the side to be treated, then more attention there, and he appeared to be in agony at the thought of having to do anything for the rest of his night, let alone playing more soccer.
In the 43rd minute, though, he trotted back onto the field. And in what little remained before halftime — about 8 minutes of play — he continued to compete. At the half, he was removed and replaced by Brenden Aaronson. Pulisic was said to have an abdominal injury; Berhalter offered no update on his condition immediately.
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“It’s a wonderful thing when one of your best players is also one of the hardest working, and he’s certainly that,” Berhalter told Fox. “I can’t say enough good things about Christian.”
The U.S. got a second goal before halftime, but it was immediately wiped out over a very close offside call against forward Tim Weah, whose finish past Beiranvand was exquisite.
In the end, which did not arrive until the clock on the referee’s watch showed 99 minutes and 50 second had elapsed since kickoff, all the U.S. starters had given everything they had, save the particular sacrifice made exclusively by their star.
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Midfielder Yunus Musah barely could walk near the end because of sheer exhaustion, and he was not alone. The U.S. players mostly fell to the turf and barely had the energy to celebrate their achievement.
They had arrived here as the youngest USMNT team in three decades, with only a single player on their roster having appeared in a World Cup before, that being reserve right back DeAndre Yedlin. And they came with criticism from many in their fan base for struggling in CONCACAF (North American) World Cup qualifying and for laboring to score in three of the four pre-World Cup friendlies they played, two in June and two in September.
Their head coach, Gregg Berhalter, has been a constant target, with #BerhalterOut a persistent hashtag on social media. He now has conquered each of the customary hurdles for a USMNT coach: the rivalry against Mexico (a 3W-0L-1D record in competitive games since 2021), World Cup qualification and, now, World Cup advancement to the knockouts.
This is only the second time the USMNT won its final group game in the “modern era”, which began in 1990 with the program’s first World Cup qualification in 40 years.
The U.S. advanced in 2014 on goal differential, aware they had only to play the eventual champion Germany to a close game to maintain an advantage over Portugal or Ghana. Needing to win against Ghana in 2006 to advance to the group stage, they fell. They lost the third game in 1994, when the tournament was played in the United States, but advanced anyway. Same in 2002, the year the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals, when they were obliterated by Poland but advanced because South Korea simultaneously drew Portugal.
Only in 2010, the other time the U.S. advanced into the Round of 16 without losing, did the Americans win that last game.
If you have followed the USMNT even for a little while, you know about Donovan’s goal in added time to push the U.S. past Algeria and to the top of the group.
Pulisic made sure the goal came earlier this time.
There was just as much drama, though, as Iran furiously chased a tying goal that would have advanced them to the knockout stage for the first time.
They had a few opportunities, but shot one wide and headed another chance just outside the post in the 93rd minute. There was a late chance that was cleared off the line by substitute defender Walker Zimmerman, who was a force in the air after entering the game late but made the second-biggest play of the game by sweeping an attempt by Mehdi Taremi away from the goal.
“It’s stressful. I think I have less hair on my head now,” Berhalter said. “But we’ll take it and move on.”