The U.S. men's national soccer team spent 90 of its final 180 minutes before the 2022 World Cup getting bossed and pressed into submission by Japan.
The USMNT entered Friday's friendly buoyed by excitement and hope; a 2-0 loss, though, set off alarms. The Americans were sloppy. They weren't menacing going forward. And in the case of a few players who might have significant roles in Qatar, they simply weren't good enough.
The worries will be tempered by absences. Christian Pulisic missed the game with a minor "knock" suffered in training. Four other potential starters — Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson and Chris Richards — are also out with injuries that should fully abate by November.
But Japan was even further from full-strength. It nonetheless exposed a few of the USMNT's biggest flaws, and, especially in a one-sided first half, suggested that the U.S. is nowhere near as World Cup-ready as many assumed or hoped.
Why the USMNT's first half was so dreadful
Over the first 30-plus minutes of Friday's match, according to stats cited by ESPN, the USMNT gave the ball away 28 times in its defensive third and completed just four passes in the attacking third.
Throughout the first half, it lost possession in its defensive half a whopping 54 times, more often than ever before under head coach Gregg Berhalter.
It failed, utterly and spectacularly, to play through Japan's press for two primary reasons. Without a vertical threat among the U.S. front three, Japan squeezed the game and ate up space in midfield. And without a competent ball-playing center back, the U.S. couldn't cope.
The first problem might be a temporary one. Pulisic and Weah typically provide the vertical threat, running beyond striker Jesus Ferreira and behind an opposing back line. With both sidelined, Berhalter opted for Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson, who are brilliant players, but are also attacking midfielders who don't stretch the game.
Without options over the top, the U.S. played into the teeth of the press. And Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman, the two U.S. center backs, were incapable. Japan forced them to be the quarterbacks. They gave the ball away, time and time again, preempting U.S. attacks and jumpstarting Japanese ones. Even before the opening goal, Long had a weak pass intercepted, which led to Japan's first clear-cut chance; and Zimmerman telegraphed a pass in his own defensive third, which led to another one.
One potential solution in such a compressed game is to stretch the field vertically and horizontally with high fullbacks. But that solution requires security in possession. The U.S. rarely had that. In the 24th minute, right back Sergiño Dest thought they did, so started bombing forward — and at that exact moment, Weston McKennie played an errant pass; Japan broke on the counter; and Daichi Kamada scored from the very position that Dest had vacated.
Japan goal stemmed from a pretty bad Weston McKennie giveaway.— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) September 23, 2022
Dest sprinting upfield just as Long played it into McKennie's feet.
USMNT defense couldn't recover. pic.twitter.com/pWqtyNUjH3
The U.S. made four halftime substitutions — Reggie Cannon for Dest was the most important — and a critical tactical change. It tweaked its shape in possession, from a 4-1-2-3 to the 3-2-5 that it used in an impressive 3-0 victory over Morocco in June. Cannon slotted into the back three. Left back Sam Vines pushed high. Luca de la Torre, who in the first half had played on the same line as fellow central midfielder McKennie, dropped next to Tyler Adams, and the U.S. rhythm improved.
But even in the second half, Japan was the better team.
The only bright spot for the USMNT was goalkeeper Matt Turner, who kept a lopsided game at 1-0 until the 88th minute — and who has seemingly locked down a starting spot.
.@headdturnerr keeps us within reach! 🧤 pic.twitter.com/5hSIlYqSNh— U.S. Men's National Soccer Team (@USMNT) September 23, 2022
But nobody else did on Monday. Long, who is presumably competing with Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers for a starting center back spot, looked perpetually beatable and uncomfortable for 45 minutes, until Mark McKenzie replaced him at halftime.
Vines, who got an opportunity to stake his claim to the backup left back role behind Robinson, didn't take it.
The USMNT will be a different team when Pulisic, Musah and Weah, especially, return. But at the very least, on Friday, it did not get any closer to being a World Cup-ready team.