Must-win game for U.S. is charged with political tension

(CNN) — The knockout stage has already arrived for the United States men’s national team at the World Cup. It can advance to the round of 16 only if it beats Iran in Tuesday’s match.

It will be a match charged with political tension as the two countries have had no formal diplomatic relationship since 1980 — a result of the Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy following the country’s Islamic Revolution.

In the build-up to the game, Iran state media called for the U.S. to be kicked out of the World Cup after U.S. Soccer changed Iran’s flag on its social media accounts to show support for protesters in Iran.

U.S. Soccer told CNN that it wanted to change the official flag for 24 hours to show “support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights” but always planned to go back to the original flag.

The men’s team manager, Gregg Berhalter, has shied away from these political undercurrents, saying that his focus is solely on soccer.

The two U.S. games so far have ended in a draw: 1-1 against Wales after letting a lead slip late on, and 0-0 against an England team full of superstars.

Against England, the American’s young “golden generation” faced its biggest test yet and looked to be the more threatening of the two teams for much of the game before holding firm against late pressure from England.

Although the U.S. team is currently four places above Iran in FIFA’s World Rankings, it will be wary of its opponent, who kept its own World Cup qualification hopes alive with a dramatic 2-0 win against Wales on Friday.

The result puts Iran’s World Cup back on track after it was derailed somewhat by an opening 6-2 defeat against England.

Iran is appearing at the tournament under the shadow of widespread protests over Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after being detained by Iran’s morality police, allegedly for not abiding by the country’s conservative dress code. Iranian security forces have since unleashed a violent response to the protests.

During the playing of the national anthems before Iran’s opening match against England on Monday, the Iranian players stood silent in what was widely interpreted as a show of solidarity with those protesting back home, while the players sang the national anthem in their second game against Wales, albeit in a subdued way.

In the other Group B match, England looks to seal its almost certain place in the knockout stages against Wales.

If England defeats Wales, the USMNT would qualify in second place in the group providing it beats Iran; while if England loses, the USMNT would finish first.

Finishing second would make its most likely opponent the Netherlands, while finishing first would likely draw Ecuador or Senegal.

Tuesday’s fixtures

Netherlands vs Qatar: 7 a.m. PT, on Fox and NBC

Ecuador vs Senegal: 7 a.m. PT, on FS1

Wales vs England, 11 a.m. PT, on NBC and FS1

Iran vs USA, 11 a.m. PT, on Fox.

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