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

Japan’s Daichi Kamada (right) and USA’s Weston McKennie challenge for the ball during the international friendly match between the USA and Japan as part of the Kirin Challenge Cup in Dusseldorf, Germany, Friday, September 23, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin meissner)

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 Friday’s friendly full of 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.

The worries are alleviated by absences. 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 still further from full strength. Nonetheless, it exposed some of the USMNT’s greatest weaknesses and, most notably in a one-sided first half, indicated that the U.S. is nowhere near as ready for the World Cup as many had assumed or hoped.

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. With both out, 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 USA played into the teeth of the 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.

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 SergiƱo Dest thought they’d done it so he started pounding forward – and just then Weston McKennie played a faulty pass; Japan erupted on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the exact position Dest cleared.

The USA made four half-time changes – Reggie Cannon for Dest being the most important – 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 US rhythm improved.

But also in the second half Japan was the better team.

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 seemingly secured a starting spot.

But nobody else on Monday. 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.

Vines, who got an opportunity to claim his left back backup role behind Robinson, didn’t take it.

The USMNT will be a different team when notably Pulisic, Musah and Weah return. But at least you didn’t get any closer to a World Cup-ready team on Friday.

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