World Cup 2022: Iran could prove key matchup for USMNT [VIDEO]

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Fox Sports – LOS ANGELES, In almost exactly seven months, the United States and Iran will meet at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar in both teams’ final — and potentially most important — match of the group stage.

After missing out on the 2018 World Cup, the Americans’ Nov. 21 opener against Scotland,  Ukraine or Wales (TBD in June’s European playoff) and the delicious contest against England four days later are probably more hotly anticipated. But for soccer reasons as much as political ones, USMNT-Iran might be the most fascinating of the young USMNT’s three Group B games.

And the result could go either way.

“This generation of Iranian players is probably the best generation they’ve had,” former Iran head coach Afshin Ghotbi told FOX Sports.

Ghotbi isn’t a household name for most U.S. fans, but he’s perhaps the second-most decorated American coach overseas, after Leeds United boss Jesse Marsch. And Ghotbi is uniquely qualified to talk about what will be the second meeting between Iran and the U.S. on the sport’s grandest stage.

Before helming Team Melli from 2009 to 2011, the Tehran-born, Southern California-raised 58-year-old was a member of Steve Sampson’s USMNT coaching staff at the 1998 World Cup in France, where the Americans famously lost to Iran 2-1. (Ghotbi was also an assistant on Guus Hiddink’s South Korean side that reached the World Cup semis in 2002, and he has led clubs in the top divisions in China, Japan and Iran.)

“The game in 1998 was very special for me,” he said. “Obviously, it had a political tone. Coming into the game, there was an enormous buildup of anxiety and pressure and stress, not so much on the American team but, I think, more on the Iranian players.

“It was a very difficult loss for the USA, not only on the sporting side.”

Ghotbi hasn’t worked in the U.S. since 2005, when he was an assistant coach with the L.A. Galaxy. But he retains close ties with the country — his parents and children still live stateside — and he has kept a keen eye on the growth of the sport and this talented, up-and-coming USMNT.

He knows Team Melli’s current squad every bit as well.

“The thing that makes this Iranian team special are the three attacking players,” he said.

Bayern Leverkusen striker Sardar Azmoun is the headliner. The 27-year-old scored 10 times in 14 World Cup qualifiers and has 40 goals in 62 international appearances overall. “He has size, he has power, he can finish with both feet and in the air,” Ghotbi said of Azmoun.

Porto’s Mehdi Taremi has been almost as prolific. And shifty Feyenoord winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh rounds out the forward trio. He’s a player the USMNT’s brain trust knows well, too; U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart brought Jahanbakhsh to AZ Alkmaar when Stewart held the same role with the Dutch club. 

“What makes Jahanbakhsh interesting is he has the quality to come inside [or] outside,” Ghotbi said. “He has fantastic final passes, and he can score goals.”

A stout and well-organized midfield and backline support the attackers; Iran conceded just four goals in their final 10 qualifiers. When the Iranian defense is breached, star goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand — a club teammate of USMNT fullback Reggie Cannon at Portugal’s Boavista — is often able to extinguish the fire. 

“He is by far the best goalkeeper in Asia,” Ghotbi said of Beiranvand, who memorably stopped a penalty kick from Cristiano Ronaldo at the previous World Cup.

Beiranvand, Azmoun, Jahanbakhsh, Taremi and several other Iranian regulars are 2018 veterans. Given last cycle’s failure and the historically young roster, the U.S. aren’t likely to have more than two players with previous World Cup experience.

Still, the Americans will be the favorites — if not by much. The U.S. have advanced to the knockout stage in three of the four World Cups they’ve participated in since finishing last overall in 1998. Team Melli have never survived the first round in five attempts.

Yet even an already eliminated Iranian side would pose a danger to the U.S. come November. Iran could lose their other two games and would still be welcomed home as heroes if they beat the Americans. That’s what happened last time.

“There is such an incredible anxiety and excitement about this particular fixture,” Ghotbi said. “When they come to the U.S. game, I think they’ll bring everything to the pitch.”

U.S.-Iran figures to be a spectacle for that reason alone.

“We have two generations of fantastic football players meeting together,” Ghotbi said. “It’s going to be a great game, and I hope everybody in America and everyone all over the world will watch it.”

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