Why USMNT struggled vs. Japan & what it means for last World Cup tune-up
The US men’s national team on Friday morning, in their second-to-last friendly before taking the field in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup, came face-to-face with their own idealism as a compact, energetic and extremely well-drilled Japan side dispensed a painful 45-minute lesson, generating their opener off their very effective press, before adding a late goal in transition for the 2-0 final.
The US, meanwhile, generated one good chance and exactly zero shots on goal. It was ugly.
If you lose the intensity battle, you lose the game. Japan pressed out of a 4-4-2, while the US in the first half built out of a 2-3-2-3 (they switched into a 3-2-2-3 in the second half), and for at least the first 45 minutes, that meant the US had numerical superiority in central midfield.
And yet Japan absolutely dominated central midfield. They xDAWG’d the US to death – it felt like they won every second ball.
You don’t win games against good teams if you don’t match their intensity. And against very good teams (which is what Japan are), if you don’t match their intensity then you run the risk of being played off the field.
And that’s what happened to the US. Over the course of the game, the US committed just three fouls, which is their lowest total in any game since 2015 as per Opta. Japan showed up for a massively important World Cup tune-up match; the US showed up for a Sunday morning kickaround.
In the ESPN postgame, Gregg Berhalter said he was disappointed that his side didn’t play with enough personality. I think the translation of that is “they played scared to make a mistake, which let Japan dictate how the game unfolded.”
What makes it so frustrating to watch is that the entire team knows it’s an issue. Here’s what Tyler Adams said on Thursday, in the final press availability before the game:
“The intensity for our team is the starting point. Guys that aren’t going to play intense, aren’t gonna be part of this team. We need to focus on improving now and steadily making progress.”
Was that on display at all on Friday? Even for five minutes? If it was, I missed it.
At this level of the sport, if you lose the intensity battle as completely as the US did on the day, you can take basically everything else and toss it in the trash. Tactics, adjustments, controversial refereeing decisions, etc. – it doesn’t really matter if one team’s walking and the other’s running.
Ok, just kidding about tossing everything else in the trash (I was using hyperbole to make a point). I’m going to go through a bullet-pointed list of what I think Berhalter and his staff will see when they go through the film this week:
I am now less worried about Matt Turner showing rust in Qatar. He’s played one game in four months but was absolutely superb with his shot-stopping, and his distribution was reliable and occasionally good.
If he gets all the Europa League and EFL Cup starts with Arsenal, that’ll be another six appearances between now and the World Cup. It looks like that will be enough for us to get the version of Turner who’s miles clear of the other options on the US depth chart in goal.
If you’re being pressed out of a 4-4-2, then the players on the field have to have the awareness to immediately shift to three at the back in the build-out. It took almost 40 minutes for the US to have that realization, and it manifested mostly by Tyler Adams dropping out of defensive midfield to split the center backs and try to push the fullbacks up.
Sam Vines, for whatever reason, didn’t push high enough on the left until the second half, but Sergino Dest – who was the only US field player to have a decent performance – understood the job immediately, which is why the right side was basically the only US outlet for the first 45 minutes.
Japan pressed and played a high line, but what really stood out was how compact they were. They looked like Arrigo Sacchi’s great old AC Milan teams from 35 years ago, with at most 30 yards from the front line to the backline when they were without the ball in the first half.
They were, in essence, daring the US to beat them over the top. And while it’s not entirely Jesus Ferreira’s fault – quicker ball movement into then out of the midfield could’ve pulled Japan around and opened the type of lanes for, say, Walker Zimmerman to ping the kind of ball that led to Brenden Aaronson’s goal vs. Morocco, and Ferreira’s speed can make him a threat on that exact kind of play – Ferreira’s presence as the No. 9 limits the US’s ability to skip a compact midfield and just play direct to the center forward.
This has been my concern with Ferreira as the preferred No. 9 all along. He is, without much question I don’t think, the best option for when the US are able to get on the ball, be on the front foot in possession, and open up gaps by imposing their style.
If the US can’t do that, though, he doesn’t act as a safety valve. You can’t just ping it in his direction occasionally and hope he can out-wrestle a center back. You’re trapped into executing your Plan A, and if you can’t execute your Plan A (as was the case for the US on the day), you’re in trouble.
I thought the game opened up more in the second half with Josh Sargent in place of Ferreira, since he can do a good deal of that target forward work, and with Jordan Morris playing as sort of a target winger. Japan certainly weren’t as compact, and their line was much deeper.
Obviously it didn’t really amount to much for the US, though, as they didn’t create a single truly dangerous chance in the second 45.
As Berhalter pointed out after the game, sloppy giveaways killed the US. Aaron Long had one bad one, Walker Zimmerman and Mark McKenzie each had two, and I counted three from Adams.
Weston McKennie, though… countless, including a really poor one on the opening goal.
It’s worth understanding that multiple Juventus managers have used McKennie as more of a box-arriver than a ball progressor because he can be so sloppy on the ball, which in big games can make him a liability in the most important parts of the pitch. They’ve consistently moved him upfield for a reason, folks.
US fans got a taste of that today. I suspect he’ll bounce back from this – the best all-around game of his US career was, I think, the World Cup qualifying win over Mexico in November of last year, and he was both influential and almost flawless on that evening.
I’m choosing to believe this performance today will serve as a useful wake-up call.
I also, however, suspect this performance will provide more fuel to the fire that is the double pivot, as Adams really struggled to receive between the lines and turn. It’s just not something he’s ever been good at, and is why he’s just a pure destroyer on the club level in a purely vertical system. The US system is not that, and Japan dared Adams, time and again, to receive on the half-turn and hit a third-line pass. Time and again, he wasn’t able to.
The solution will be to plunk Yunus Musah down next to Adams from the start, with Musah acting as more of an orchestrator and Adams in his more comfortable destroyer role. They don’t have a lot of reps playing together like that – just the Morocco and Uruguay games from this summer. But I don’t think it’ll be such a steep learning curve, and it has the added benefit of pushing McKennie higher into a role much more like the one he plays for Juve.
I actually thought Luca de la Torre had some good moments playing next to Adams on Friday, though you could see he’s carrying a lot of rust as he’s barely played since joining Celta de Vigo. That rust was less apparent in his touches (which were cleaner than any other US midfielder’s by a mile) than in his rotations and defensive awareness, which was two steps slow.
I don’t know how he fixes that without reps for his club side. Hopefully he can start getting some of those between now and November, because if it’s not him backing up Musah, Johnny Cardoso sure as hell didn’t look like the answer.
1. Better intensity. The US need to go out there and impose themselves on the game. Japan didn’t play like it was a friendly today – the US should take the hint.
It’s wild and weirdly endearing that this group doesn’t ever hit peak intensity for anyone but Mexico. Against anyone else, they can’t get out of first gear. Against Japan, they were stuck in neutral and still had the parking brake engaged.
2. Another start for Vines. I thought he was better in the second half, and given how crucial it is to have a like-for-like back-up to Antonee Robinson, Vines should continue to get a lot of rope here.
3. Double pivot from the start, for the reasons explained above. Adams starts with de la Torre in the Musah role, and let’s hope both guys look sharper on both sides of the ball.
4. Sargent over Ferreira from the start, for the reasons explained above.
5. An ability to toggle from Plan A (disorganize the opponents with the ball!) to Plan B (win second balls and go!) during the run of play. The US did that twice against Mexico in qualifying (peak intensity!), and there’s no reason to think they can’t start translating it now against other teams.
In fact, they’ve got to, or this cycle will be remembered for a lot of promise, a lot of frustration, and one very brief trip to Qatar.