USMNT is led by Japan in an alarming loss ahead of the World Cup

The US men’s national soccer team spent 90 of their last 180 minutes before the 2022 World Cup being dominated and pushed into submission by Japan.

The USMNT entered their penultimate pre-World Cup friendly with excitement and optimism; however, a 0-2 defeat triggered the alarm. The Americans were sloppy. They weren’t threatening forward. They were “really disappointing,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner.

They didn’t get a single shot on goal. And in the case of some players who could play a significant role in Qatar, they just weren’t good enough.

Concern is mitigated by absence. Christian Pulisic missed the game with a slight “jerk” he suffered in training. Four other potential starters – Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards – are also absent with injuries that should have fully resolved by November.

But Japan was just as far from full strength. Still, it surprised the USMNT with its momentum and exposed some of the USMNT’s biggest flaws – particularly in a one-sided first half that suggested the Americans are nowhere near as ready for the World Cup as many had assumed or hoped.

Weston McKennie was one of several USMNT regulars who underperformed against Japan on Friday. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Why the first half of the USMNT was so terrible

In the first 30+ minutes of Friday’s game, the USMNT passed the ball 28 times in their defensive third, according to stats cited by ESPN and completed only four passes in the attacking third.

She lost possession in defense a total of 54 times in the first half, an all-time high under head coach Gregg Berhalter.

It failed completely and spectacularly to gain acceptance from Japan’s press for two main reasons. With no vertical threat among the three US fronts, Japan pressed the game and gobbled up midfield space. And without a competent ball-playing central defender, the United States could not cope.

The first problem could be temporary. Pulisic and Weah usually provide the vertical threat, running past forward Jesus Ferreira and behind an opposing defensive line. Her runs force the back line to drop, which opens up space between the lines; or they discourage 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 attacking midfielders than forwards; they don’t stretch the game. Without overblown options, the US played into the teeth of the Japanese press – and Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman were unable to break it.

Japan forced these two MLS central defenders to be the quarterbacks. And they gave away the ball over and over again, preventing US attacks and launching Japanese ones. Even before the opening goal, Long intercepted a weak pass that led to Japan’s first clear chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass in his own defensive third that led to another.

After the game, Berhalter aptly lamented “stupid freebies,” but many were also forced by poor spacing and either an unwillingness or inability to hear a plan B.

USMNT’s possession problems gave them the opener

A possible solution in such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with tall full-backs. But this solution requires security in possession. The US rarely had that.

In the 24th minute, right-back Sergiño Dest thought they had, so he started pounding forward as he often does – but just then Weston McKennie played a faulty pass; Japan erupted on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the exact position Dest cleared.

The solutions in November will hopefully look different. Musah is a one man press break. Weah and Pulisic will make bypassing the press a more viable option. And the general outline and rhythm of a game against Wales, the USMNT’s first World Cup opponents, will be quite different from Friday’s game against Japan.

Friday was still an eye opener. The USMNT spent months learning how to combat low-quality but keen competition across North and Central America. It seemed shocked at the level of athleticism and quality at its first venture outside of its own region since May 2021.

The USMNT did not adapt quickly enough

The USA made four half-time changes – Reggie Cannon for Dest being the most significant – and one crucial tactical change. They improved their form in possession, going from a 4-1-2-3 to a 3-2-5, which they capitalized on in an impressive 3-0 win over Morocco in June. Cannon stuck in the back three. Left-back Sam Vines pushed up. Luca de la Torre, who had played on the same line as McKennie, his central midfielder, in the first half, dropped alongside Tyler Adams and the USMNT’s connectivity improved. With Musah replacing Luca, his momentum could also improve.

The three-man base and double pivot were a better response to Japan’s 4-4-2 defensive form. Worryingly though, Berhalter and the players didn’t tune in sooner.

And in the second half Japan was still superior. In the 90 minutes, he had 16 shots (and eight on target) against the Americans’ four (and zero).

The only bright spot for the USMNT was goaltender Matt Turner, who kept a one-sided game at 1-0 until the 88th minute – and who has seemingly secured a starting spot between the sticks.

The USMNT centre-back’s problem is getting worse

However, while the goalkeeping position is looking increasingly stable, the central defender’s position remains alarmingly unsettled. Long, a 29-year MLS veteran supported and promoted by Berhalter without Richards, looked shaky in June and worse on Friday.

And it wasn’t just his death. He couldn’t handle the sharpness of the Japanese strikers. In the 23rd minute, for example, he was caught watching the ball – just for a split second, but a split second that often reveals the differences between the MLS level and the international level.

But it was mainly his death. With a shy Vines on his left; and with Japan directing him to the touchline on his weaker left foot; and with a box-to-boxer, McKennie, instead of a ball-playing midfielder in front of him, the left side of the US attack was almost non-existent and possession dwindled even more.

Long, believed to be competing with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a starting spot at centre-back, looked constantly beatable and uncomfortable for 45 minutes until Mark McKenzie replaced him at half-time.

Robinson’s return should solidify the position at full-back, but central defense is unmistakably a problem with no clear solution. Carter-Vickers has not played any significant minutes for the national team. Richards has not played for his club side Crystal Palace, even when he was healthy. McKenzie wasn’t on that list until Carter-Vickers and Richards retired with injuries.

However, the centre-backs were far from the only problem on Friday. Japan’s second goal, a curler at the end of a skidding run by Kaoru Mitoma, underscored a USMNT performance that probably deserved worse than a two-goal loss.

And it prompted Berhalter to admit, perhaps euphemistically, after the game: “We have work to do.”

Additional Comments

The one time Reyna got the ball in an inside position, it spawned the best US move of the game.

That move ended with Dest switching to Ferreira, who couldn’t lift his 5ft 9 frame high enough to bring his header down – which isn’t his fault but his lack. It’s not unreasonable to argue that Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok could all have jumped at that chance and given the USA an early lead.

It’s also fair to argue that USA needed a 9th place goal on Friday and that Sargent, Pepi and Pefok would all have been better suited.

But it’s unfair to score those points without first realizing that Ferreira is the best presser among forwards and, more importantly, that his playing skills are accentuated when Weah and Pulisic are alongside him. He probably wasn’t the best option as a striker in this particular game, but he’s likely to play against Wales.

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