USMNT loses World Cup tuning to Japan

DUSSELDORF, Germany — The World Cup is just two months away and if the United States’ penultimate vote on Friday was a window into how Gregg Berhalter’s side will fare in Qatar, it will be a short stay.

At first glance, a 2-0 defeat by Japan doesn’t sound like a disaster. But over a dismal 90 minutes, the Americans made mistakes that created chances and one error that resulted in a first-half goal. They missed an early opportunity that would have set the tone, failed to solve problems, lacked ideas, and performed neither in style nor in a snap.

Japan’s late goal created a final lead that is more indicative of the gap between the teams.

Several absences, including star attacker Christian Pulisic, were factored into the performance but there was no excuse for the split and overall inferiority against an opponent who is bound for the World Cup but is not a global elite.

Questions about central defense and Berhalter’s forward choices for this last meeting before the approaching storm surfaced again.

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Pulisic was injured during the week’s training session in nearby Cologne, a setback that only became known 75 minutes before kick-off. Had this been a World Cup game, Pulisic would probably have been in uniform. The US Football Association said it had been held as a precaution.

If he is healthy, Pulisic is expected to play against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain on Tuesday – the last US test before the squad is finalized in early November and the squad arrives in Qatar ahead of their opener against Wales on November 21.

Pulisic was the only late scratch, but seven ailing others vying for a World Cup squad spot were out before camp even started: goalkeeper Zack Steffen, left-back Antonee Robinson, centre-back Chris Richards and midfielder Cameron Carter-Vickers Yunus Musah and Cristian Roldan, and forward Tim Weah.

Robinson and Musah are full-time starters, while Steffen, Richards and Weah are contenders.

The absences opened up slots for left-back Sam Vines and central midfielder Luca de la Torre.

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The other line-up choices were largely predictable: Matt Turner in goal and captain Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long as partners in central defence; Sergiño Dest back right; Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie fill out the midfield; and Gio Reyna, Jesús Ferreira and Brenden Aaronson occupied a front line with an average age of 20.3 years. (Pulisic’s presence would have increased it to just 22.)

In his 13th appearance in the United States, 19-year-old Reyna wore the number 21 – the number his father claimed for much of his national team career. The often injured son started for the first time since the World Cup qualifiers started last September.

Japan – ranked 24th and preparing for their seventh consecutive World Cup – boasted a 30-man squad featuring 22 players from European clubs, including seven from Germany. Here was the home of striker Ao Tanaka (second division Fortuna Dusseldorf).

The strong European presence was the impetus for Japan to host two friendlies this FIFA game window – Samurai Blue will also play Ecuador here on Tuesday – and Düsseldorf was the venue of choice due to a large Japanese community in the region. Nevertheless, the announced number of spectators in the 54,000-seat stadium was only 5,149.

The Americans were under pressure early on, partly from their own resources. (Long was a conspicuous culprit.) In the seventh minute, however, they created the first quality opportunity. Dest crossed for Ferreira, but the FC Dallas striker headed up from a prime position in the six-yard box.

Gio Reyna is happy and healthy. This is good news for the USMNT.

Defensive weaknesses continued for the United States, forcing Turner to save Zimmerman in the 13th minute with a reflex save against Daichi Kamada’s minor threat.

A dozen minutes later, Japan picked up on USA’s carelessness, culminating in Kamada’s angled shot past Turner.

The sequence started with McKennie making a bad touch in the center circle. Japan pounced on the slow-reacting Americans. Dest was pushed forward and was way out of position when Japan countered. With plenty of room, Kamada floated into the box, received Hidemasa Morita’s pass and drove a 12-yard one-timer into the far corner.

Initially, the goal was nullified by an offside flag, but video playback restored the Eintracht Frankfurt attacker’s goal.

With more unforced errors, an inability to untie Japan’s press and attacking in static mode, the Americans achieved nothing until a whiff of optimism late in the half.

Berhalter made four of his six available substitutions at half-time. Dest, Long, Reyna and Ferreira were done. Right-back Reggie Cannon, centre-back Mark McKenzie, winger Jordan Morris and forward Josh Sargent competed. (Given the nature of the game, some of the moves were prearranged.)

The Americans were more composed but still mild-mannered. Turner kept them in play with another great save in the 66th minute. Berhalter’s last two substitutions came a minute later, with Malik Tillman and Johnny Cardoso replacing McKennie and de la Torre.

Japan pushed hard for a second goal, but it was thwarted by the steadfast Turner. Aaronson had a promising look from the top of the box in the 81st minute but missed a top corner.

Kaoru Mitoma added a goal in the 88th minute, placing a low shot out of Turner’s reach and into the far corner.

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