How is your day? Me? Well, I woke up at 2:30 a.m. to find that my alarm was off — and so was my air conditioner, internet connection, and fridge. Most of my food is spoiled, and it’s supposed to be in the high 90’s now where I live. I know what you’re thinking: Yes, I’ve already tried to flip the switch. Something must have fried overnight.
All in all, I’m having a better day than the United States men’s national team and most of their fans who got up early to watch the team play. On a dry, overgrown field in Dusseldorf, Germany, in front of a few thousand fans in a 55,000-seat stadium, the USMNT began their final two games before the World Cup by being utterly thrashed by Japan’s B team, losing 2-0 .
These games were meant to be a warm-up – a reason to get in some training sessions, build more chemistry in a largely fixed roster, and gather more data to make some final decisions about Rim World places in the Cup roster. Instead, the USMNT has delivered the kind of feat that will make skeptics continue to question the validity of Gregg Berhalter’s project.
It’s just a game, but should you be worried?
WHY YOU SHOULD CONCERN ABOUT THE USMNT
I have three rules regarding international friendlies. The first: the score doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t care who wins these games because it’s rare that you ever see a friendly game where the primary goal for both sides is to actually win the game. Sometimes it’s about getting minutes for players who haven’t played much; Other times, it’s about trying a new system or approach. Also, in friendlies you don’t really know how hard each player is playing. And if every player doesn’t do their best, like in a World Cup game, then you can’t really judge anyone, let alone the team as a whole.
– Report: The USA fall to Japan in the World Cup preparation game
Which brings us to Rule #2: the achievements count only a little bit. If you know exactly what a team or manager’s goal is in a friendly you can judge the team based on that, but if you’re not part of the team you won’t have that information. Despite this, these teams play so few games. The USMNT played 14 qualifiers over a seven-month period. Totally ignoring friendlies would mean throwing away some additional, potentially valuable information about each national team.
And so rule no. 3: Ultimately, these games are only worth reading if a team plays without lights or totally lays an egg. And well, on Friday, USA had multiple eggs: zero goals and zero shots on target.
Japan 2-0 USA
— The Analyst US (@OptaAnalystUS) September 23, 2022
But it wasn’t just the lack of the final product or the accidental creation.
Berhalter has spoken of his team dominating with the ball and pushing high on the field. Although the USA were by most reports outplayed in a 2-0 loss to Canada in Hamilton, Ontario in January, Berhalter appeared to have disagreed. After the game, he said it was difficult “to recall a more dominant performance away from home that didn’t produce a result”.
– Carlisle: USMNT had no response for Japan regarding the worrying vote
Although USA didn’t create much and gave Canada some great chances, he focused more on how USA controlled the ball and played most of the game in Canada’s defensive third. Perhaps he thought his team had finally shown the underlying structure – the pressing, the quick passing game and the positional discipline to keep the ball – that would lead to better chances for his team in the long run.
Herculez Gomez slams the USMNT for their performance in the 2-0 loss to Japan.
Whether this is the best structure to aim for – for these players, or even for international football in general – is of course still up for debate. As my colleague Bill Connelly recently outlined: “In the four World Cup qualifiers in which the USA had less than 50% possession, they averaged 2.5 points and 2.8 goals scored per game; in 10 games over 50% they averaged 1.5 points and 1.0 goal.” Some of the team’s best games under Berhalter were when they gave up more ball and played in the transition phase; some of their most frustrating games took place when they dominated the ball but could not defeat the opponent.
– Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (USA)
In Düsseldorf, Berhalter got to know a team that handles the ball carefully, attacks with speed or circulates the ball sideways and masters high pressing. Unfortunately, it was the team he was training against. Despite Japan’s press seeding a number of key players for the game, the Japanese press smothered the US all over the pitch:
— The Analyst US (@OptaAnalystUS) September 23, 2022
Although the USA had more possession (58%), Japan dominated the battle for territory. Berhalter’s side completed just 42% of all passes in the final third of the game, and that stat speaks to a different problem. Despite being forgotten and the field tipped against them, the US could not charge forward with pace.
That #USMNT moved the ball towards the Japanese goal at an average speed of 0.62 meters/second.
That’s the second-lowest odds in all of the team’s 55 games under Berhalter. 🐢
(0.56 m/s vs. Mexico in Sept. 2019)
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) September 23, 2022
And maybe this is where we stumble into the friendlies problem. If the US couldn’t get a foothold in a World Cup game, would they still try to force their way forward through complex possession passes that most of the time don’t work? They did that against Japan and maybe there’s some value in trying and failing, but in Qatar maybe they would change gears and try to use the space their opponents have to leave behind their back line to go press.
WHY YOU SHOULD NOT WORRY ABOUT THE USMNT
Aside from the tactical direction, a major reason the USA couldn’t play more directly was that their three best attacking exits – Christian Pulisic, Antonee Robinson and Tim Weah – were injured and therefore could not emphasize the defense with runs to the back .
For all his talents, Gio Reyna is not a player to sneak behind a defensive line. Jesus Ferreira plays more of a “9.5 role,” where he combines between the lines and sometimes plays other attackers into the space he’s cleared. Even Brenden Aaronson appears to be more effective at receiving passes between midfield and defensive lines than behind the back four.
Both Sam Vines and Aaron Long struggled in the first half as their performances were heavily strained, rendering the left side of the field almost entirely ineffective to integrate the game into the Japanese half. In contrast, right-back Sergino Dest, who created the team’s only decent chance of the game, was arguably asking too much also turned the ball overra ton during the 45 minutes he was out there.
However, one bizarre positive to take away from all of this is Matt Turner’s performance. Because the USA played so poorly, they conceded a number of big chances, allowing Turner to put up a relatively large number of shots on target. Sure, he’s conceded twice, but he’s also made six saves, and according to Stats Perform, the average goalie could have been expected to concede at least three:
In a way, the goalie was the team’s biggest question mark heading towards that window, although Turner seemed to provide an answer. His lack of playing time hasn’t detracted from his typically excellent shot-saving ability. Of course there are more questions about the central defender’s situation than a day ago; Both Long and Mark McKenzie have had rough days.
The same could probably be said of the striker’s pitch. Ferreira was fine while Josh Sargent didn’t attempt a single shot in his 45 minutes on the field. Ricardo Pepi didn’t play and Jordan Pefok isn’t in the squad.
So, aside from Turner’s performance, there are only two other positives to take away from the Japan game: 1) it’s over and 2) it really can’t get any worse.