The US national soccer team spent 90 of the final 180 minutes before the 2022 World Cup ordered and forced into submission by Japan.
The USMNT entered Friday’s friendly, buoyed by excitement and optimism; a 2-0 loss, however, causes alarms. The Americans were sloppy. They were not threatening to move forward. They were “really disappointing,” in the words of goalkeeper Matt Turner.
They didn’t get a single shot on target. And in the case of a few players who could play an important role in Qatar, they just weren’t good enough.
Concerns are tempered by absences. Christian Pulisic missed the game with a small “knock” in training. Four other potential starters – Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards – are also out with injuries that should fully subside by November.
But Japan was still at full strength. It nonetheless exposed some of the USMNT’s biggest flaws, suggesting, especially in a one-sided first half, that the US is not nearly as World Cup-ready as many thought or hoped.
Why The First Half Of The USMNT Was So Awful
In the first 30 minutes of Friday’s game, according to statistics cited by ESPN, the USMNT gave up 28 times in its defensive third and completed just four passes in the offensive third.
During the first half, the team lost 54 times possession in the defensive half, more than ever before under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It failed, utterly and spectacularly, to get through the Japanese press for two main reasons. Without a vertical threat between the three fronts of the US, Japan squeezed the game and ate space in the midfield. And without a competent ball-playing central defender, the US couldn’t handle it.
The first problem may be temporary. Pulisic and Weah typically pose the vertical threat, past striker Jesus Ferreira and behind an opposing backline. With both offsides, Berhalter chose Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson, who are brilliant players but are also more attacking midfielders than forwards; they don’t stretch the game.
Without exaggerated options, the US played in the teeth of the press. And Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman were unable to break it.
Japan forced those two MLS center backs to be the quarterbacks. And they gave the ball away again and again, anticipating American attacks and triggering Japanese attacks. Even before the opening goal, Long had intercepted a weak pass, which led to Japan’s first clear chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass into his own defensive third, triggering another.
USMNT possession problems led to opening goal
One possible solution in such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with tall wing backs. But that solution requires security in possession. The US rarely had that.
In the 24th minute, right-back Sergiño Dest thought so, so he started to bomb forward, as he often does – but at that exact moment Weston McKennie made a foul pass; Japan broke on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the position Dest had left.
The US made four halftime substitutions – Reggie Cannon for Dest being the most important – and a crucial tactical change. It changed its form in possession, from a 4-1-2-3 to the 3-2-5 it used in an impressive 3-0 win over Morocco in June. Kanon slid into the back three. Left back Sam Vines pushed high. Luca de la Torre, who had played on par with fellow central midfielder McKennie in the first half, fell alongside Tyler Adams and the American rhythm improved.
But also in the second half, Japan was the better team.
The only bright spot for the USMNT was goalkeeper Matt Turner, who held a lopsided game at 1-0 until the 88th minute – and who has seemingly sealed off a starting spot.
But no one else did that Monday. Long, presumably competing with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a central starting spot, looked constantly beaten and uneasy for 45 minutes until Mark McKenzie replaced him at halftime.
Vines, who was given the chance to claim the back-up as a left-back behind Robinson, didn’t grab it.
The USMNT will be a different team when especially Pulisic, Musah and Weah return. But on Friday it certainly didn’t come any closer to a World Cup-ready team.