'Of course, our thoughts are with the Iran people, the players and the whole country, but our focus is on this match.'
United States coach Gregg Berhalter insisted his team is focused only on Tuesday's Group B showdown with Iran as he sidestepped the political fracas around the game caused by decades of enmity between the nations.
In a tense and unusual news conference on Monday, Berhalter was questioned about US immigration and naval policy while US captain Tyler Adams was asked about discrimination in the States and chided by an Iranian reporter for mispronouncing the country's name.
Washington and Tehran severed all formal diplomatic ties in 1980 after the Islamic Revolution and bilateral relations were hostile when their soccer teams clashed in the 1998 World Cup group stage.
Ties have been strained in recent years after then-President Donald Trump pulled the US out of an Iran nuclear deal. The US killed a top Iranian general in 2020 and Tehran responded with missile strikes at US forces based in Iraq.
Iran earned a famous 2-1 victory in the 1998 tournament, a game widely viewed as the mostly politically charged in World Cup history and dubbed at the time as the "mother of all football matches".
"That game just sticks in my mind and burns in my mind," Berhalter told reporters before the Group B showdown.
"I was doing commentary on Dutch television for that game. What I saw from the opening whistle is one team that really wanted to win the game and one team that didn't. Iran were really committed, really focused. And for us to have a chance tomorrow, that's going to have to be the mindset."
The US could secure a place in the knockout round with a win while Iran only need a point.
"We know exactly what Iran are going to bring, and we don't want to make the same mistakes as we did in the past," Berhalter said.
"We want to learn from that and be able to put it into performance."
Iran's players have been dragged into a political crisis at home, pressured by protesters seeking to challenge the legitimacy of the country's clerical rulers to side with them publicly and condemn a deadly state crackdown.
The US Soccer Federation temporarily displayed Iran's national flag on social media without the emblem of the Islamic Republic to show "support for the women in Iran fighting for basic human rights". Players were not consulted on the decision to alter the flag.
"I can only reiterate that the players and the staff knew nothing about what was being posted. Sometimes, things are out of our control," Berhalter said.
"All we can do on our behalf is apologise on behalf of the players and staff, but it's not something that we were a part of... Of course, our thoughts are with the Iran people, the players and the whole country, but our focus is on this match.
"I don't want to sound aloof or not caring by saying that, but the guys have worked really hard for the last four years. It's a knockout game, both teams are desperate to go to the next round. That's how we're looking at this match."