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U.S. will play Iran for a place in the knockout stage at the FIFA World Cup

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The World Cup is almost a week old, and the U.S. men's national soccer team is still in it. U.S. players even upended - or ended up tying England. It's been a dramatic tournament so far, upsets and political protests. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Hi there, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: OK, let's start with that match against Engerland (ph). The U.S., when it is underdogs, came out with that - here, look, I've been watching nil-nil draw. But why were they so upbeat about it?

GOLDMAN: Because they played even with the No. 5 ranked team in the world, an English team that trounced Iran 6-2 in its opening match in a country, you know, with all that rich history in the sport. So to hold England scoreless and to outplay the Brits for much of the match yesterday, that's a job well done. Now, no one on the U.S. team was happy. They wanted the three points you get for a win. And the Americans, again, showed this worrisome inability to finish great scoring chances with goals. Goals are important, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: But they felt they showed what they're capable of. They're a young, talented team that put together a total match effort. And they say that gives them confidence going into next week's critical final match in this initial group stage.

SIMON: And what's at stake at this stage of the tournament?

GOLDMAN: Oh, everything. The goal of...

SIMON: You set me up for that, didn't you?

GOLDMAN: I did. And you fell for it.

SIMON: Yes, I did. Yeah.

GOLDMAN: The goal of all 32 teams at this World Cup is to finish in the top two in their group and move into the knockout rounds where matches are single elimination. You win, you go on. You lose, you're out. Currently, the Americans are in third place in their four-team group. But it is very tightly packed. And if the U.S. beats Iran Tuesday, it qualifies for the knockout stage. If it loses, it's out. So it's a simple goal - win and you're in. The U.S. knows that to really show it's a team to be taken seriously on the world stage, it has to be in the knockout round. It has to get to the knockout round. So the match against Iran becomes huge.

SIMON: If that weren't dramatic enough. There's also been political protests, really, throughout the tournament and a very brave Iranian team.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, you know, we've talked a lot about the concerns about the host country, Qatar, and its policies toward LGBTQ communities and treatment of migrant workers. Those concerns are still there. But the troubles in Iran have now taken center stage here in Qatar. Yesterday, Iran's thrilling, last-minute victory over Wales shared the stage with some ugly scenes between two factions of Iranian fans - those in support of the current protest movement in Iran that's been going on for months and those supporting the Iranian government that's cracking down on protesters. Now, at the match, there were angry words. There was intimidation by the government supporters. Qatari security backed those government supporters by confiscating protesters' flags and T-shirts. So we're wondering what kind of measures will be in place next Tuesday as this situation has escalated over the course of Iran's first two matches.

SIMON: Wow. Back to footy. As we near the end of the first week, what are you looking for?

GOLDMAN: A lot including, is Japan for real after upsetting Germany? How will tournament favorite Brazil play without star Neymar, who's out with an injured ankle? And tonight, I am going to Argentina versus Mexico. Aren't I lucky to see firsthand if Argentina can recover after its shocking loss to Saudi Arabia? Now, Argentina needs to win, or the great Argentine forward Lionel Messi won't get the redemption he's been seeking for so long, finally leading his country to a World Cup title.

SIMON: NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman in Doha. Have a brewski - oh, sorry. Thanks for being with us, Tom.

GOLDMAN: (Laughter) Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.