The US men’s national soccer team spent 90 of its final 180 minutes before the 2022 World Cup getting bossed and pressed into submission by Japan.
The USMNT entered its penultimate pre-World Cup friendly buoyed by excitement and optimism; to 2-0 loss, though, set off alarms. The Americans were sloppy. They weren’t threatening going forward. They were “really disappointing,” in the words of goalkeeper Matt Turner.
They didn’t manage a single shot on target. And in the case of a few players who might have significant roles in Qatar, they simply weren’t good enough.
Concern will be tempered by absences. Christian Pulisic missed the game with a minor “knock” suffered in training. Four other potential starters — Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards — are also out with injuries that should be fully abate by November.
But Japan was just as far from full-strength. It nonetheless started the USMNT with its dynamism, and exposed a few of the USMNT’s biggest flaws — especially in a one-sided first half that suggested the Americans are nowhere near as World Cup-ready as many assumed or hoped.
Why the USMNT’s first half was so dreadful
Over the first 30-plus minutes of Friday’s match, according to stats cited by ESPN, the USMNT gave the ball away 28 times in its defensive third and completed just four passes in the attacking third.
Throughout the first half, it lost possession in its defensive half a whopping 54 times, more often than ever before under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It failed, utterly and spectacularly, to play through Japan’s press for two primary reasons. Without a vertical threat among the US front three, Japan squeezed the game and ate up space in midfield. And without a competent ball-playing center back, the US couldn’t cope.
The first problem might be a temporary one. Pulisic and Weah typically provide the vertical threat, running beyond striker Jesus Ferreira and behind an opposing back line. Their runs force that back line to drop, which either opens up space between the lines or dissuades the opponent from pressing so aggressively.
With both Pulisic and Weah sidelined, Berhalter opted for Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson, who are brilliant players, but are also more so attacking midfielders than forwards; they don’t stretch the game or present themselves as targets. With Reyna and Aaronson flanking Ferreira, the US didn’t cleanly complete a single line-skipping ball in the first half.
Instead, with the direct route unavailable, it played into the teeth of the Japanese press — and Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman were incapable of breaking it.
Japan forced those two MLS center backs to be the quarterbacks. And they gave the ball away, time and time again, preempting US attacks and jumping starting Japanese ones. Even before the opening goal, Long had a weak pass intercepted, which led to Japan’s first clear-cut chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass in his own defensive third, which led to another one.
Speaking after the match, Berhalter accurately bemoaned “silly giveaways,” but many were also enforced by poor spacing, and by either an unwillingness or inability to audible to a Plan B.
When the US did play long, often toward the 5-foot-10 Aaronson down the right, Japan inevitably won the first ball; and with Weston McKennie, the USMNT’s best second-ball winner, stationed on the left side of the midfield three, Japan won the second ball consistently as well.
USMNT’s problems in possession led to opening goal
One potential solution in such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with high fullbacks. But that solution requires security in possession. The US rarely had that.
In the 24th minute, right back Sergiño Dest thought they did, so he started bombing forward, as he often does — but at that exact moment, McKennie played an errant pass; Japan broke on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the very position that Dest had vacated.
The solutions in November will, hopefully, be different. Musah is a one-man press-break. Weah and Pulisic will make bypassing the press a more viable option. And the general contour and rhythm of a game against Wales, the USMNT’s first World Cup opponent, will be very different than Friday’s against Japan.
Friday, though, was nonetheless an eye-opener. The USMNT spent months learning to combat inferior but feisty competition throughout North and Central America. It seemed shocked by the level of athleticism and quality in its first venture outside its own region since May of 2021.
The USMNT didn’t adjust quick enough
The US made four halftime substitutions — Reggie Cannon for Dest was the most significant — and a critical tactical change. It tweaked its shape in possession, from a 4-1-2-3 to the 3-2-5 that it used in an impressive 3-0 victory over Morocco in June. Cannon slotted into the back three. Left back Sam Vines pushed high. Luca de la Torre, who in the first half had played on the same line as fellow central midfielder McKennie, dropped next to Tyler Adams, and the USMNT’s connectivity improved. With Musah in place of Luca, its dynamism might improve, too.
The three-man base and double pivot was a better answer for Japan’s 4-4-2 defensive shape. It’s worrying, though, that Berhalter and the players didn’t adjust sooner.
And even in the second half, Japan was still superior. Throughout the 90 minutes, he managed 16 shots (and eight on target) to the Americans’ four (and zero).
The only bright spot for the USMNT was goalkeeper Matt Turner, who kept a lopsided game at 1-0 until the 88th minute — and who has seemingly locked down a starting spot between the sticks.
The USMNT’s center back problem worsens
If the goalkeeper position looks increasingly settled, however, the center back position remains frighteningly unsettled. Zimmerman is solid, and was on Friday, whenever the ball wasn’t at his feet. But Long, a 29-year-old MLS veteran who’s been supported and elevated by Berhalter with Richards out, looked shaky in June and worse on Friday.
And it wasn’t just his passing. He couldn’t handle the sharpness of Japan’s forwards. In the 23rd minute, for example, he got caught ball-watching — only for a split-second, but a split-second in which the differences between the MLS level and the international level often show.
But it was mainly his passing. With a timid Vines to his left of him; and with Japan funneling him toward the sideline, onto his weaker left foot from him; and with a box-to-boxer, McKennie, rather than a ball-playing midfielder in front of him, the left side of the US attack was almost non-existent, and space in possession shrunk even more.
Long, who is presumably competing with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a starting center back spot, looked perpetually uncomfortable for 45 minutes, until Mark McKenzie replaced him at halftime. (McKenzie looked better in possession, and completed the team’s very first line-skipping pass of the match, to halftime-sub Josh Sargent, in the 54th minute. But he faltered multiple times in duels.)
Robinson’s return should solidify the fullback position, but the center of defense is, unmistakably, a problem without a clear solution. Carter-Vickers hasn’t played meaningful minutes for the national team. Richards hasn’t been playing for his club team, Crystal Palace, even when healthy. McKenzie wasn’t on this roster until Carter-Vickers and Richards pulled out with injuries.
The center backs, though, were far from the only problem on Friday. Japan’s second goal, a curler at the end of a slithering run from Kaoru Mitoma, punctuated a USMNT performance that probably served even worse than a two-goal defeat.
And it led Berhalter to admit postgame, perhaps euphemistically: “We’ve got work to do.”
• The one time Reyna got on the ball in an inside position, he sprung the best US move of the game.
• That move ended with Dest crossing to Ferreira, who couldn’t lift his 5-foot-9 frame high enough to get his header down — which isn’t his fault, but is his shortcoming. It’s not unreasonable to argue that Sargent, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok all might have finished that chance and given the US an early lead.
It’s also fair to argue that the US needed a target at the No. 9 position on Friday, and that Sargent, Pepi and Pefok all would have been better suited.
But it’s unfair to make those points without first recognizing that Ferreira is the best presser among the forwards, and, more importantly, that his playmaking skills get accentuated when Weah and Pulisic are beside him. He probably wasn’t the best option at a striker in this specific game, but he likely will be against Wales.
• After the match, Berhalter addressed the USMNT’s lack of “personality.” Perhaps players were uninspired by a most-empty stadium and eerily subdued atmosphere. Whatever the source, though, he was right.
• Both McKennie and Adams had uncharacteristically bad games. The optimistic outlook is that, surely, they — and therefore the team as a whole — won’t be as bad when it counts in Qatar.
• Pulisic is considered “day-to-day” and questionable for the USMNT’s final pre-World Cup friendly, against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday.