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USMNT bossed by Japan in disappointing pre-World Cup defeat

The US men’s national soccer team spent 90 of their final 180 minutes under pressure from Japan to submit before the 2022 World Cup.

The USMNT entered their penultimate pre-World Cup friendly, fueled by excitement and optimism. But the 2-0 loss sounded the alarm. Americans were sloppy. They weren’t threatening to move forward. In the words of goalkeeper Matt Turner, they were “really disappointed”.

They failed to hit a single shot. And for the few players who could play an important role in Qatar, they simply weren’t good enough.

Absence relieves anxiety. Christian Pulisic missed the match with a minor ‘knock’ he suffered during training. Four starters – Tim Ware, Yunus Musser, Anthony Robinson and Chris Richards – are also sidelined with injuries, but should be fully recovered by November.

But Japan was far from going all out. Nevertheless, it surprised the USMNT with its dynamism and exposed some of the USMNT’s biggest flaws.

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

Why the USMNT’s first half was so bad

Over the first 30 minutes of Friday’s game, the USMNT gave up the ball 28 times in the defensive third, according to stats cited by ESPN. Only made 4 passes in the attacking third.

Throughout the first half, the defensive half lost possession a whopping 54 times. This happened more often than ever under head coach Greg Berhalter.

Playing back through the Japanese press has failed completely and spectacularly for two main reasons.Without a vertical threat to the US front three, Japan would squeeze the game and leave the midfield space. devoured the And without a competent ballgame centre-back, the United States would not have been able to cope.

The first issue may be temporary. Pulisic and Ware usually run past the striker Jesús his Ferreira and behind the enemy back his lines to provide a vertical threat. Their runs force that backline down, leaving space between the lines or discouraging opponents from pressing so aggressively.

With both Pulisic and Weah out, Burhalter chose Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronsson. They don’t stretch the game or present themselves as targets. With Reina and Aaronson positioned on Ferreira’s flanks, the U.S. failed to complete one line-skipping ball cleanly in the first half.

Instead, it hit the teeth of the Japanese press because no direct route was available — and Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman couldn’t crack it.

Japan made two MLS centre-backs quarterbacks. And they gave the ball over and over, getting ahead of the US attack and jump starting the Japanese attack. Even before the opening goal, Long intercepted a weak pass, leading to Japan’s first decisive chance. Zimmermann telegraphed a pass at his own defensive third, which led to another pass.

In his post-match remarks, Verhalter precisely lamented the “silly giveaways,” but many were forced by poor spacing or an unwillingness to hear Plan B.

When the USA made long plays, often to Aaronson at 5ft 10m on the right, Japan inevitably won the first ball. Weston McKechnie, USMNT’s best second ball winner, was placed on the left side of midfield three, and Japan consistently won his second ball as well.

USMNT possession problems led to first goal

One potential solution for such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with high backs. But that solution requires owning security. The United States rarely had it.

In the 24th minute, right-back Serginho Dest started bombing forward as usual because he thought they had done it, but at that moment McKechnie played an errant pass. Japan broke on the counter. Daichi Kamata scored from the position that Dest had vacated.

The November solution will hopefully be different. Musaha has a one-man press breakWare and Pulisic make avoiding the press a more viable option. Also, the general shape and rhythm of the USMNT’s first-ever World Cup opponents, Wales, will be very different from Friday’s match against Japan.

Still, Friday was an eye-opener. The USMNT has spent months learning how to fight inferior but fierce competition across North and Central America. He seems shocked by the level of athleticism and quality in his first venture outside his region since May 2021.

USMNT did not adjust quickly enough

The US made four substitutions at halftime — Dest’s Reggie Cannon was the most important — and made an important tactical change. The ball possession pattern he tweaked from 4-1-2-3 to 3-2-5, which he used during his 3-0 victory over Morocco in June. The cannon was plugged into the backsleeve. Left-back Sam Vines pushed it high. Playing on the same line as central midfielder McKennie in the first half, Luca de la Torre fell next to Tyler Adams, improving connectivity for USMNT. If there is Musa instead of Luka, the dynamism may be improved.

A three-man base and double pivot was the better answer to Japan’s 4-4-2 defensive shape. But it’s worrying that Berhalter and his players didn’t adapt right away.

And in the second half, Japan still dominated. In 90 minutes, he managed 16 shots (and 8 on target) against 4 (and 0) for the Americans.

USMNT’s only bright spot was goaltender Matt Turner. He kept the game one-sided until his 88th minute, where he was 1-0.

USMNT’s centre-back problem worsens

But if the goalkeeper position seems increasingly stable, the center back position remains frighteningly precarious.Zimmerman was solid, the ball was always on Friday it wasn’t at his feet. But the 29-year-old, an MLS veteran who missed Richards and was promoted backed by Burrhalter, looked shaky in June and worsened on Friday.

And it wasn’t just his death. He couldn’t handle the Japanese forward’s sharpness. In the 23rd minute, for example, he got caught ball-watching — a split second, but one that often makes the difference between MLS level and international level.

But it was mostly his death. To his left is the Cowardly Vines. Then Japan turned him to the sidelines and put him on his weak left foot. With box-to-boxer McKennie not a midfielder playing the ball in front, the US attack on the left was almost non-existent, further reducing possession space.

Long, who is believed to be competing with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for the starting centre-back spot, looked uncomfortable for the entire 45 minutes before Mark Mackenzie replaced him at half-time. Looking good on the field, he made the team’s first line-skipping pass to halftime sub Josh Sargent in the 54th minute, but he was repeatedly frustrated in the duel.)

Robinson’s return should solidify the full-back position, but there is no doubt that the heart of the defense is a problem with no clear solution. Carter He Vickers has not played meaningfully for the national team. Richards hasn’t played for his club team, Crystal Palace, even when healthy, and Mackenzie said he wasn’t on this roster until Carter Vickers and Richards withdrew through injury.

But it wasn’t just the centre-backs who were the problem on Friday. His second goal for Japan, Kaoru Mitoma’s slithering curler at the end of his run, interrupted the USMNT’s performance.

And that, perhaps euphemistically, led Verhalter to admit after the match: “We have work to do.”

Other notes

When Reina held the ball inside position, he produced the best US move in the game.

The move ended with Dest crossing to Ferreira. Ferreira couldn’t lift her 5-foot-9-inch frame high enough to drop a header. This is not his fault, but his shortcomings. It’s not unreasonable to argue that Sargent, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok could all have seized their chances and given the US an early lead.

It’s also fair to argue that the US should have set a target for ninth on Friday, and Sargent, Pepi and Pefok would all have been better suited.

But without first recognizing that Ferreira is the best presser among forwards and, more importantly, when Weah and Pulisic are by his side, his playmaking skills are emphasized. He probably wasn’t the best choice as a striker in this particular game, but he’s more likely against Wales.

After the game, Berhalter lamented the USMNT’s lack of “personality.” Perhaps the player wasn’t inspired by the emptyest stadium and eerily subdued atmosphere. But whatever the source, he was right.

Both McKennie and Adams had unusually bad games. The optimistic outlook is that they, and therefore the team as a whole, certainly aren’t all that bad when counted in Qatar.

Pulisic has been seen as ‘daily’ and is in doubt in Tuesday’s final friendly before the World Cup against Saudi Arabia.