A Friday friendly that started unusually early in the US proved a sobering and perhaps useful wake-up call for the American men.
Gregg Berhalter wants his young side to play aggressively and directly, making mistakes and then capitalizing on quick runs and passes behind defense. He wants the field to be tipped and to that end he has repeatedly said he plans to deploy a high back in Qatar. He expects to be up front.
Sometimes the opponent has other plans. Faced with a smart, energetic Japanese side that refused to give the US a foothold or play to their strengths, the Americans collapsed and were easily beaten 2-0 at the Merkur Spiel-Arena in Dusseldorf, Germany. The Americans literally lost possession and didn’t score a single shot on goal. That was Berhalter’s worst performance since the World Cup qualifying defeat in Panama last October. In this game, a heavily rotated squad played in oppressive humidity. On Friday in Germany, Americans were simply poor.
“I think we hurt each other a little too much in the game with stupid freebies,” Berhalter told ESPN after the game. “Give Japan a lot of credit. Good team, competitive team, they pressed well. But we can do better.”
In a first half that set the tone for Japan’s dominant win, the Americans lost the ball 54 times in their own half. This is the highest value since the acquisition by Berhalter in 2019. according to TruMedia. Starting centre-backs Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, who were considered starting favorites in Qatar, were challenged by Japan to orchestrate the build-up. Both fought. Midfield was sluggish and unable to maintain possession or transition into attack and the front three posed no vertical threat and were largely silent. Forward Jesús Ferreira missed America’s best chance by heading a high cross from right-back Sergiño Dest well over the bar.
“It is more [a lack of] personality in the game. For some reason I didn’t see much personality in tonight’s performance,” Berhalter said.
There is only one game left – next Tuesday’s friendly against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain. Berhalter plans to unveil its 26-man World Cup squad on November 9 and the team will start training in Qatar five days later. The Americans open the World Cup on November 21 against Wales.
It’s easy to focus on that game and the high-profile clash against England that follows as November’s games in the US will make or break the game. With modern global football culture being the way it is, teams from the dominant continents of Europe and South America will be all the more feared and familiar. That’s understandable to a certain extent – only two of the 84 all-time World Cup semi-finalists came from outside these two prestigious regions. But if anyone linked with the US thinks that unannounced Iran, opponents in the group stage final, will present an easier game, Friday’s performance should erase that performance. Iran (22nd place) ranks ahead of Japan (24th place), which clearly outclasses the Americans.
The US is moving beyond the Concacaf comfort zone and needs to adapt.
“I think the group is capable of achieving something. We just have to see. My biggest concern is that we are underestimating the difficulty of the World Cup, just as we underestimated the first qualifying window. That’s my biggest concern,” Berhalter said sports illustrated this summer.
Maybe that’s the bright spot of the defeat in Düsseldorf: not only the big names can play. Although the USA were missing a number of World Cup starters – winger Christian Pulisic missed training on Friday with a minor injury, while left-back Antonee Robinson, midfielder Yunus Musah and winger Tim Weah are unavailable this month – Japan didn’t have their most experienced starting XI XI either. Still, their energy and coordinated pressure were too much for the US. Turnovers from Long and Zimmerman led to a few Samurai Blue chances in the first 10 minutes and Japan scored the only goal they needed in the 24th minute after a terrible midfield play from Weston McKennie. Dest was too far forward and couldn’t recover, the central defenders were sucked into the ball and Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada was alone on the left side of the box for a simple flick.
“Really disappointing. It was a really competitive game for a friendly and I wish we had a bit more bite from the start. I think we hurt each other in many ways,” US goaltender Matt Turner told ESPN. “They probably deserved to win this time.”
The substitutes changed the game, as is the case in all friendlies, and the Americans had some better spells in the second half when Josh Sargent and Jordan Morris eventually pushed the Japanese back a bit. But Brenden Aaronson’s late hopeful offer from the top of the box, which sailed high, was the most promising look. Japan earned their well-deserved second place in the 88th minute when substitute Kaoru Mitoma, who plays for Brighton & Hove Albion, dribbled past Reggie Cannon and Tyler Adams before whipping a shot past Turner.
While Friday’s loss raised questions about how the US could deal with a fit and skilled opponent who is proactive, punchy and aggressive, it may have helped Berhalter answer one too. Despite the two goals, Turner was outstanding. He made six saves, some of which were spectacular, and couldn’t do much on the occasions when he was beaten. Up to this point, training time at Arsenal – he’s only played one game for the Gunners – doesn’t seem to have undermined his sharpness.
“One day at a time. Stay healthy. Every time I have the opportunity to play a game, play well, play consistently and show people how I’ve grown in my game,” Turner said of his approach after the loss. “I think I’ve come a long way in the 2-3 months I’ve been at Arsenal. Overall, I just want to show that I’m out there to compete. I’m really, really proud and grateful for every opportunity I have to represent this country.”
Turner looks good to start in Qatar whether the rest of his team is ready or not.
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