The US men’s national soccer team spent 90 of its last 180 minutes before the 2022 World Cup being dominated and pressured by Japan.
The USMNT entered Friday’s friendly buoyed by excitement and optimism; a 2-0 loss, however, set off alarm bells. The Americans were careless. They were not threatening in the future. They didn’t get a single shot on goal. And in the case of some players who could have big roles in Qatar, they just weren’t good enough.
Worries will be tempered by absences. Christian Pulisic missed the match due to a slight “blow” suffered in training. Four other potential starters — Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards — are also out with injuries that should be completely gone by November.
But Japan was even further from being at full strength. Nonetheless, he exposed some of the biggest failings of the USMNT and, especially in a one-sided first half, suggested that the US is not as prepared for the World Cup as many assumed or hoped.
Why the first half of the USMNT was so terrible
During the first 30 minutes or more of Friday’s game, according to statistics cited by ESPN, the USMNT gave the ball away 28 times in their defensive third and completed only four passes in the attacking third.
Through the first half, he turned over possession in his defensive half 54 times, more often than ever under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It completely and spectacularly failed in the Japanese press for two main reasons. Without a vertical threat between the US forward three, Japan squeezed the game out and ate up space in midfield. And without a competent center back playing the ball, the US couldn’t cope.
The first problem could be temporary. Pulisic and Weah often provide the vertical threat, running past striker Jesus Ferreira and behind the opposing baseline. With both out of the game, Berhalter opted for 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 against 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 the American attacks and initiating the Japanese. Even before the first goal, Long had a weak pass intercepted, leading to Japan’s first clear chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass into his own defensive third, which led to another.
A potential solution in such a compressed game is to stretch the pitch vertically and horizontally with high wingers. But that solution requires security in possession. America rarely had that. In the 24th minute, right back Sergiño Dest thought so, so he started to bomb forward, and at that exact moment, Weston McKennie made a missed pass; Japan broke on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the same position Dest had vacated.
The US made four substitutions at halftime (Reggie Cannon for Dest was the most important) and a critical tactical change. He altered his form in possession from a 4-1-2-3 to the 3-2-5 that he used in an impressive 3-0 win over Morocco in June. Cannon fitted to the rear three. Left back Sam Vines pushed high. Luca de la Torre, who in the first half had played in the same line as central midfielder McKennie, fell alongside Tyler Adams, and the American pace improved.
But even in the second half, Japan was the better team.
The one bright spot for the USMNT was goalkeeper Matt Turner, who kept a game lopsided at 1-0 until the 88th minute, and who seemingly secured a starting spot.
But no one else did on Monday. Long, who is presumably vying with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a starting center back job, looked perpetually beatable and awkward for 45 minutes, until Mark McKenzie replaced him at halftime.
Vines, who had a chance to claim the backup left-back job behind Robinson, didn’t take it.
The USMNT will be a different team when Pulisic, Musah and Weah, especially, return. But at least, on Friday, they were no closer to being a World Cup-ready team.