DUSSELDORF, Germany — Even an optimist would struggle to glean more than a few positive signals from the US men’s soccer team’s show against Japan on Friday afternoon.
Matt Turner, one of the goalies in contention for the No. 1 job, looked steady with his hands (albeit less so with his feet) as he put on athletic saves in both halves.
Nobody seemed to get hurt. The weather was pleasant.
Could that have been it?
In one of their last full-on comebacks before stepping onto football’s biggest stage in November, the Americans lost 2-0 in an overall lackluster performance that will no doubt be seen as a missed opportunity for a group accelerating its World Cup preparations.
The Americans have another friendly against Saudi Arabia in Spain on Tuesday, the side’s last official match before their opening game against Wales in Qatar.
Coach Gregg Berhalter observed over the week that some of his players were looking a little ‘tense’ – that is to say, on edge. He said that was understandable: There were jobs at stake, life-changing ones, for several players vying for spots on his roster.
But it will worry him and the team’s supporters that the uncertainty continued so openly into Friday’s midday kick-off against Japan.
“The boys didn’t look fresh,” said Berhalter after the game. “From a physical edition, we took a step back. A team like Japan will punish you.”
“It was lack of comfort on the ball, stupid giveaways. We hadn’t imagined it like that.”
However, the Americans were missing some of their key players: Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah and Yunus Musah – three potential World Cup starters – were ruled out of the whole camp injured, as was Christian Pulisic, the team’s biggest star on Friday after suffering his own injury in training scratched the squad. Berhalter called Pulisic “day-to-day” with a “knock” that he didn’t specify.
But against Japan, who are also traveling to Qatar, the side’s problems felt bigger than the absence of some players.
Japan put steady pressure on the United States from halfway through kick-off, and the Americans struggled to work their way forward with a semblance of intent, using sloppy touches and erratic passing. The USA finished the game without a single shot on goal.
“We wish we had shown our personality on the field a little more,” Turner said. “Obviously the lads are disappointed.” When asked how worrying the performance was, he said: “Better now than the first week in Qatar.”
Japan’s first goal was a microcosm of American problems. The USA tried to play the ball out of defense in the 24th minute when midfielder Weston McKennie casually turned the ball around. A few quick passes later and with the American defense suddenly recovering, the ball found its way to Daichi Kamada, who was wide open on the left side of the box, and he calmly rolled it into the right post.
The Americans had the best chance earlier in the first half when Sergiño Dest drove to the right of the Japanese goal to the end line and threw an inch-precise cross across the opening of the Japanese goal, where Jesus Ferreira, one of the players, scored in the race for the striker job, was waiting.
Ferreira received a chance straight to the forehead and smacked his header harmlessly over the bar, much to the delight of the packed crowd of Japanese fans seated behind the net.
The crowd erupted again in the closing minutes of the game as Kaoru Motima completed a solo dribbling run down the left flank by deftly deflecting a shot to the bottom right corner of the goal around Turner.
The Americans hung their heads. It was such an afternoon.