National Writer: Charles Boehm

USMNT humbled by Japan as World Cup nears: “We hurt ourselves"


The US men’s national team expect to face a talent deficit against top opponents, including and especially at the Qatar 2022 World Cup this fall, and to be outplayed at times, too – Gregg Berhalter said as much when unveiling his roster for this month’s camp in Europe.

“I know we're not going to be the most talented team at the World Cup,” the head coach noted last week, “and we're going to have to compensate for that by being a cohesive unit, by working for each other, fighting for each other and having a great team spirit. We're going to have to do that if we want to be successful at the World Cup.”

The fact that those qualities were missing from Friday’s passive 2-0 friendly loss to Japan at Merkur Spiel-Arena in Düsseldorf, Germany may be even more alarming than the USMNT’s myriad errors and tactical struggles.

“Obviously really disappointing,” goalkeeper Matt Turner, one of the USMNT’s few positive standouts on the day, told ESPN in a pitchside interview postgame. “It was a really competitive game for a friendly match, and I just kind of wished that we had a little more bite about us from the start. I think we hurt ourselves in a lot of ways.

“We made some big improvements in the second half, but then at the end, the fact that they were a bit more competitive than us on the 50/50 balls, the restarts, most of that stuff – so I think they probably deserved to win this one.”

The former New England Revolution star kept the scoreline a flattering one relative to the Yanks’ performance, making six saves, several of them required after dangerous US turnovers in their own end of the pitch. The Samurai Blue’s intense, muscular pressing wreaked havoc and there was little of the usual USMNT fighting spirit in response.

“It was a really competitive match. I think we ended up hurting ourselves a little bit too much in the game with silly giveaways,” said Berhalter in a short interview with ESPN. “And we want a little more personality in the match. Give Japan a lot of credit: Good team, competitive team, they pressed well, but we can do better.

“For some reason, I didn't see a lot of personality with that performance tonight.”

Both Turner and defensive midfielder Tyler Adams suggested that the difficulties posed by this skillful opponent led individual players to lose confidence and abandon the team concepts that undergird their identity.

“You have to give credit to Japan, they’re such a talented team. I played against a bunch of those guys in the Bundesliga before and they have quality all over the field, and they showed it tonight,” said Adams, who played at RB Leipzig before joining Premier League side Leeds United over the summer, in a live interview with ESPN’s Futbol Americas.

“So credit to their game plan, it worked. But it didn't feel like we executed our match plan going into the game,” he added. “We can't just start to waver and do our own things and allow individuality to creep into the team. We need to stick together as a team at the end of the day and we didn't do that.”

After a brutal first half in the usual 4-3-3 formation, Berhalter stuck to a series of planned substitutions, including a quadruple change at halftime and a shift to a three-man defense with a 3-2-2-3 shape in possession after intermission.

That helped stem the flow of turnovers in the back, yet the Japan back line led by Takehiro Tomiyasu remained largely untroubled and the Yanks finished the match with zero shots on goal and a mere 0.49 expected goals.

With Tuesday’s friendly vs. Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain their final match before FIFA’s World Cup roster submission deadline and the final countdown to the Group B opener vs. Wales on Nov. 21, drastic improvement will be needed in order to leave this international window in a positive state of mind.

“It's definitely a tough one to take. I mean, you come here wanting to treat it like a group-stage game at the World Cup, in preparation for the World Cup, and we didn't reach our standard today,” lamented Adams.

“We faced a talented team but in the end, it felt like we almost played into their hands. We had a little bit of frustration seep in. And you could just tell the team was off, a little late to tackles, late receiving the ball, finding solutions, being dangerous and creating chances like we normally do so. It's a learning experience at the end of the day, and something that we got to take on the chin for the next game.”