The US men’s soccer team played 90 of their final 180 minutes ahead of the 2022 World Cup under Japan.
The USMNT entered the penultimate friendly before the World Cup spurred on by excitement and optimism; however, a 2-0 defeat caused alarm. The Americans were careless. They didn’t threaten to move forward. According to goaltender Matt Turner, they were “really disappointing”.
They failed to make 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.
Anxiety will be moderated by absence. Christian Pulisic missed the game with a minor hit in practice. Four other potential starters – Tim Weah, Yunus Musa, Anthony Robinson and Chris Richards – have also been ruled out with injuries that should be fully healed by November.
But Japan was just as far from full strength. However, he impressed the USMNT with his dynamism and exposed several of the USMNT’s biggest weaknesses – especially in a one-sided first half that suggested that the Americans were nowhere near as ready for the World Cup as many assumed or hoped.
Why the first half of USMNT was so terrible
In the first 30-plus minutes of Friday’s game, USMNT passed the ball 28 times in their defensive third, according to statistics provided by ESPN. completed only four passes in the attacking third.
During the first half, the team lost the ball in the defensive half a whopping 54 times, more than ever under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It didn’t make it through the Japanese press completely and spectacularly for two main reasons. With no vertical threat among the American front three, Japan squeezed the game and ate up space in midfield. And without a competent central defender, the United States cannot cope.
The first problem may be temporary. Pulisic and Weah usually create a vertical threat by running after forward Jesús Ferreira and behind the opposition’s defensive line. Their runs force that backline down, which either opens up space between the lines or discourages the opponent from pressing so aggressively.
With both Pulisic and Weah left out, Berhalter chose Gio Reina and Brenden Aaronsohn, who are brilliant players but also attack midfielders more than strikers; they do not stretch the game and do not present themselves as targets. With Reina and Aaronsson playing wide from Ferreira, the Americans didn’t score any clean misses in the first half.
Instead, due to the lack of a direct route, this played into the hands of the Japanese press, and Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman were unable to crack it.
Japan forced these two MLS centre-backs to become quarterbacks. And they gave the ball over and over again, preempting the US attacks and launching the Japanese attacks. Even before the first goal, Long intercepted a weak pass, leading to Japan’s first clear chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass to his defensive third, leading to another.
Speaking after the match, Berhalter accurately lamented the “stupid hands”, but many of them were also caused by poor spacing and either not wanting or not being able to hear Plan B.
When the US did play long, often against the 5’10” Aaronson on the right, Japan would inevitably win the first ball; and with Weston McKenney, the top USMNT second ball holder, positioned on the left side of the midfield trio, Japan also consistently won second ball.
USMNT possession problems led to goal
One possible solution to such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with the help of tall cornerbacks. But this solution requires security in possession. This was rare in the US.
In the 24th minute, right-back Serginho Dest thought they had done it, so he started bombing forward as he often does, but just at that moment McKenny mishandled a pass; Japan broke down on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the same position that Dest had vacated.
Decisions in November, I hope, will be different. Musah – single press break. Weah and Pulisic will make bypassing the press a more viable option. And the overall contour and rhythm of the game against Wales, USMNT’s first World Cup opponent, will be very different from Friday’s game against Japan.
Friday, however, was a revelation. The USMNT has spent months learning how to deal with inferior but brash competition throughout North and Central America. He seemed to be shocked by the level of athleticism and quality of his first venture outside his region since May 2021.
USMNT didn’t adjust fast enough
The US made four substitutions at halftime – Reggie Cannon for Desta was the most significant – and a critical tactical change. He changed his possession formation from 4-1-2-3 to 3-2-5, which he used in an impressive 3-0 victory over Morocco in June. The gun crashed into the rear three. Left-back Sam Vines advanced high. Luca de la Torre, who had been on the same line with fellow center half McKenney in the first half, made way for Tyler Adams and USMNT communications improved. With Musa instead of Luka, his dynamism could also improve.
The three-man base and double prop was the best response to Japan’s defensive 4-4-2 formation. What is worrying, however, is that Berhalter and the players have not adjusted sooner.
And even in the second half, Japan was still stronger. In 90 minutes, he landed 16 shots (and eight on target) against four (and zero) for the Americans.
The only bright spot for the USMNT was goaltender Matt Turner, who was 1-0 up until the 88th minute and apparently blocked the starting position between the sticks.
Problem with USMNT centre-back gets worse
However, if the position of the goalkeeper looks more and more stable, then the position of the central defender remains frighteningly unstable. Zimmerman is reliable and was on Friday whenever the ball did not have at his feet. But Long, a 29-year MLS veteran who was backed and promoted by Berhalter after Richards left, looked shaky in June and even worse on Friday.
And it wasn’t just about him leaving. He could not cope with the sharpness of the Japanese attackers. In the 23rd minute, for example, he was caught watching the ball – just for a split second, but a split second that often shows the difference between MLS level and international level.
But mostly it was his departure. With a timid vine to his left; and with Japan guiding him to the sideline, onto his weaker left leg; and with boxer-boxer McKenney playing in front of him rather than a ball-handling linebacker, the US left flank was almost non-existent, and possession space shrank even further.
Long, who allegedly competes with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a place at quarterback’s starting center, looked consistently uncomfortable for 45 minutes until Mark McKenzie replaced him at half-time. (Mackenzie looked better with the ball, and in the 54th minute he made the team’s very first pass of the match with a missed line to Josh Sargent, who replaced him at half-time. But he hesitated several times in duels.)
The return of Robinson should strengthen the defender’s position, but the center back is unmistakably a problem with no clear solution. Carter-Vickers did not play significant minutes for the national team. Richards did not play for his Crystal Palace club team, even when he was healthy. McKenzie was not on that list until Carter-Vickers and Richards were out with injuries.
However, centre-backs were far from the only problem on Friday. Japan’s second goal, a curler at the end of Kaworu Mitoma’s slippery run, underlined a USMNT performance that probably deserved more than a two-goal loss.
And that made Berhalter admit after the game, perhaps euphemistically, “We have a job to do.”
• The only time Reina received the ball from the inside was the best US take of the game.
• That move ended with Dest moving to Ferreira, who couldn’t lift his 5’9″ body high enough to land a headbutt – it’s not his fault, it’s his fault. It is entirely reasonable to argue that Sargent, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok may have seized this chance and provided the US with an early advantage.
It’s also fair to say that the US needed a target at position #9 on Friday, and that Sargent, Pepi and Pefok would have been better suited.
But it would be unfair to talk about it without first acknowledging that Ferreira is the best presser among strikers, and, more importantly, that his playing skills are enhanced when Weah and Pulisic are around him. He was probably not the best striker in this particular game, but he will probably play against Wales.
• After the match, Berhalter expressed regret at the USMNT’s lack of “personality”. Perhaps the players were not inspired by the most empty stadium and eerily subdued atmosphere. But whatever the source, he was right.
• Both McKenny and Adams had uncharacteristically poor performances. The optimistic forecast is that they, and therefore the whole team as a whole, will certainly not be so bad when it counts in Qatar.
• Pulisic is considered ‘everyday’ and questionable in USMNT’s final pre-World Cup friendly against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.