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USA’s problem against Iran isn’t politics. It’s that we don’t know how to win | USA

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The flavor of this World Cup is very different: I’m tempted to call it “The beautiful distraction”. It’s Argentina focusing only on doing this for Lionel Messi and then forgetting how to play soccer without him. It’s Germany trying to make a statement before kickoff and then losing to Japan. It’s what has happened to Iran in their opener, where they were dealing with so much politically that England smelled blood and destroyed them. It’s Qatar hosting the tournament despite not being good enough to play in it. (This game will not only punish a coward, it will also punish the untalented.) Make sure you’re good enough to be there next time.

The USA cannot engage in the distraction. Next they have to play Iran, and the decades-old political backdrop is enormous. For our players I think this is the one week to say, “No comment”. It doesn’t mean you don’t care. But if they stuck a microphone in my face as a player and asked how I feel about what’s going on in Iran, I’d say: “Ask me on Wednesday. Next question.”

When you have to be ultra‑focused on an objective, it is best to stay ultra-focused on that objective – and our objective is to win at all costs. It is too important for us not to, and I hesitate to use the word “ruthless”, but we need to be. Iran are going to fight. Their coach knows us: Carlos Queiroz was once hired by the US Soccer Federation to write the Project 2010 report. It’s no secret that he would love the USMNT job.

My USA team played Iran in the 1998 World Cup. Much was made of it, and there were some political gestures, but it didn’t really affect us. We treated it like an opportunity to show how this sport can bring people together. Some of my teammates were against the idea of acting like we were OK with everything, and found it to be a distraction. I don’t think it was something that we fully understood — nor did we want to. We wanted to keep it separate. Sure, we understood the hostage crisis and the feelings that the two countries had for each other. But it wasn’t our focus.

I wasn’t on the field that day, so I didn’t even exchange a jersey. The coach never put me in.

As we were losing 2–1, Steve Sampson’s last change was to substitute a midfielder for a defender. Brad Friedel looked across the bench at me and said: “If you got on an airplane right now, we would all understand.” Even my teammates knew I should’ve gone in the game.

On Tuesday against Iran, we win or go home. The problem is, US sports are built around “Let’s get ’em next time”; around coming in last so you can get a draft pick; around rewarding failure. We don’t have promotion and relegation. We don’t have ownership groups who have felt the sting of an inadequate team, and thus a sting to their business. Because when your team lose, it means you’ve hired the wrong people to hire the wrong people to hire the wrong people. You lost. But in American sports, there is no sting to coming in last. So often when the USA play soccer, we don’t know how to win – we’re not used to having to win – and so we try to not lose. And we end up getting exactly what we deserve: a tie. Even if many of our players compete in leagues with promotion and relegation, that culture still permeates USA soccer.

And by the way, as American ownership spreads its wings in the soccer world and buys clubs, my only wish is that they don’t suck out the essence of competition simply because we don’t know how to win.

Here’s the broader view of what the Iran game represents: It’s about who’s got more pride, us or them? Iran’s country is in turmoil, based partly on notions of manhood. We have all seen Iran’s congress chanting “Death to America”. Of course, the belief systems that turn into hate have no business being on the soccer field on Tuesday. However, let’s be clear: a victory for either side will represent dominance. And the biggest punch in the face that we could ever give to the Iranian regime right now – since, in their eyes, this is a battle of who’s more macho – would be to beat them.

Iran have nothing to lose. And the US? We’ve grown a league from nothing to one that is boasting $900m franchise values, which is probably more than most Bundesliga teams. Billions of dollars have been spent for us to become a better soccer nation – and it’s all riding on our ability to put away a team that’s going to solely play defense, led by a coach we once hired to help us.

In order to win this one, we need to understand perfectly the realities of risk-reward football. We have to be brave enough to throw more numbers forward and be down in the back. That’s how you go for it. It’s going to require great defending. Our offensive weapons are good enough; we just need one more option. It’s the one thing that Carlos Queiroz can’t stop.

This must-win situation is also a must-foul situation. If the press breaks down, foul immediately. Take the yellow. We’re going to get guys on card trouble, and our coach needs to understand that. Our boys can’t afford to think about the reality of sitting out the next game. There is no tomorrow, and every play could be the play that wins it for us or ruins our day. We must win – we’re not Canada.

In my opinion it’s going to take all 16 players to win this. We’re going to have to be smart in our substitutions. And we have to find Iran’s weakness, their wounded gazelle. As soon as we do, we need to have lunch. After all, we just played the Three Lions. Now it’s our turn to be lions.

Eric Wynalda scored 34 goals in 106 appearances for the USA and played at three World Cups. He is now a broadcaster.