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USA vs. Japan, 2022 friendly; What we learned

The USMNT took on Japan as preparation for the World Cup, and it didn’t go quite as planned. Here’s what we learned.

Japan v USA -International Friendly Photo by Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team took on Japan in Düsseldorf, Germany, and fell 2-0 in what turned out to be a torrid and dispiriting performance.

As a pre-World Cup test, this was a good one. Japan are actually quite a decent team. This particular squad appeared to be a little more experimental than the normal starting XI, but the team overall is pretty good. They were at the 2018 World Cup, where they advanced to the knockout stages (albeit, on the 7th tiebreaker after tying for 2nd place in their group) and very nearly saw off Belgium, one of the darlings for that tournament and a major candidate for the top prize for this year’s tournament.

However, the way that the USMNT played in this one does not inspire confidence. I don’t want to overstate how much it matters to lose a friendly with several months between it and the World Cup, but I do not think this performance was a good sign. To keep things a little more concise — it would take ages to sit and pick apart all the major problems in this match — we will focus on the points of failure on the turn over that led to Japan’s opening goal. From there, we’ll talk about some individual player performances and what that means roster-wise for the World Cup.

Aaron Bears His Doubts
Weston Blesses Empty Space
Blue Samurai Strikes

The opening goal for Japan really highlighted all that was wrong with this match. If you need a second look, you can watch the goal here:

We are going to look at the turn over that preceded the goal. For our purposes here, I’ve illustrated the turnover to show approximately where the outfield players are on the field and to highlight the key actors and decisions.

The play starts out on the USMNT’s right, with the US winning the ball right by the sideline. The ball moves out to Aaron Long towards the middle, who takes a few touches towards the center circle. He passes to Weston McKennie who, in turn, attempts a one-touch pass backwards. That pass is mishit, falling between Long and Sam Vines, the later of whom has moved forward and was no longer a pass option. Japan easily and quickly picks up the ball and, with a 4 vs. 3 on goal, they put a clean finish past Turner.

There are a series of problems that turned a comfortable situation into a one-goal deficit, problems that range from individual errors and moments of unskillfulness, to fundamental tactical problems. To list, we will touch on:

  1. The slow pace at which the USMNT advances up the field.
  2. The disconnect between the backline and the midfield
  3. The fullback and winger decisions sacrificing the left wing
  4. Aaron Long’s mediocre pass
  5. Weston McKennie’s positional and individual mistakes

I will try and go through these sequentially, but each wrinkle is contingent on what else is happening. Each of these problems is contextual and pulling them apart as individual mistakes risks losing the forest for the trees.

To begin with, the US is moving too slowly here. A lot of people will immediately point to Aaron Long’s hesitancy on the ball, but I think that is far too simplistic. On a well-drilled, counter attacking side, as soon as the ball is recovered, you have players moving down the field, presenting possible options to advance towards goal. On the visual, there’s a huge patch of green space on the USMNT’s left side (the top in the picture) that is completely open. With quick play and aggressive movement, there is an opportunity for the US to attack into the space and advance to goal. The fullback can aggressively move into that space. Or the winger can make a run in behind to get onto a long ball (or at least drag the defenders out of their disciplined lines). There’s space for an attacking motion, to advance the ball before Japan can get reorganized or begin aggressively pressing.

However, the USMNT here has a lack of urgency. Rather, it looks like the team looks to establish a stance with clear and comfortable possession. Players do not break towards the space that Japan has left open. They languidly take up central positions. Gio Reyna tucks inside, Sam Vines merely drifts along the wing. Instead of planning and making runs in behind to present a long-ball option, Jesus Ferreira and Brendan Aaronson take up positions where they can receive the ball at their feet during build up.

With nobody taking any aggressive actions, Aaron Long lingers on the ball. Now, would Long have played an aggressive pass? I can’t say. He doesn’t have the reputation for it, but you can’t fault him for not making a pass that wasn’t there. What he does do is look for a passing outlet. And here, there aren’t good options. Sam Vines is open, but he’s not in an advanced enough position to be worth it, especially not with a nearby Japanese player to press him. Gio Reyna is in a Japanese player’s cover shadow, same for Ferreira and Aaronson. Tyler Adams and Luca de la Torre were out wide to recover the ball and they aren’t back in position yet (and shifting the ball right puts it back in danger with so many Japanese players still there). The one straight forward, open option is McKennie. So that’s the pass he makes.

When people say that Aaron Long is not a good passer, I tend to believe they mean he either does not make aggressive forward passes, or he tends to turn the ball over. While Long did, indeed, turn the ball over quite a bit vs Japan, the problem here is more subtle. The pass comfortably reaches its target. But the pass is towards McKennie’s left foot, with him facing goal. This means that McKennie, who is aware that there is a Japanese player who will close down on him, must make a play with his back facing goal. He can either turn and try to dribble out of the pressure and advance up the field (not his strong suit), or he can hit a one-time pass. McKennie chooses to make the one-time pass... and he loses his concentration and hits the ball to no one, allowing Japan to win the ball with a numbers advantage.

Iran, England, Wales
We must return to the world
Demonstrate Talent

On a basic level, if McKennie keeps his concentration up, he doesn’t make this mistake and doesn’t turn the ball over to Japan with the defense in such a vulnerable position. Or, if he were more confident/skillful, he would turn and move up the field. Or, if he were a little more positionally aware, he could have taken a slightly different position a little closer to Long, making it substantially easier for Long to make a pass that McKennie could run onto, while making it more difficult for Japan to close down on him (McKennie overshot that position). And, of course, Long could be a more skillful passer (while that was a big deal in the game, it kind of was the least relevant mistake for this one.)

These fixes would have addressed this particular bad moment. But they would not have addressed the fundamental problems in this game. Everybody is talking about how the USMNT couldn’t deal with Japan’s press. But as this moment shows, the underlying problem is really that the US played too passively. They gave time for Japan to put a press into place, time that they could have used to advance up the field. They need to play quicker.

Player availability was definitely relevant in this game. Antonee Robinson has become such an important player for the USMNT and he was dearly missed for this one. The difference between Robinson’s shaky first few caps under Berhalter and now is that Robinson understands his limitations and plays in a way that minimizes them while highlighting his strengths. Because of that, he’s sufficiently solid on defense and an integral attacker, stretching the field and maintaining width to allow the US to advance. Tim Weah, similarly, helps advance the team by stretching the field both vertically and horizontally, with dangerous runs in behind on the wing. Christian Pulisic is a bit less aggressive with his runs in behind, but, as shown against Morocco, he has the capacity to combine such runs up through the middle with excellent technical skill to break defenses down. On the other side, we missed out on Chris Richards and his more assured passing under pressure. And the team seriously missed the calm presence of Yunus Musah, whose sublime ability on the ball helps the team advance up the field and thwart opposing presses.

All these omissions due to injury were relevant. But the team still had players who would have helped make a difference. A lot of fans detest the inclusion of the likes of Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris with the national program. But one thing those players do consistently that the more-highly regarded players like Reyna and Aaronson do not, is stretch the field vertically. They make runs in behind the backline. And not having them on the field from the start made it too easy for Japan to close space down and shut the US out. While Jesus Ferreira’s ability to combine is often quite useful in and around the final third, the fact that he tucks into midfield instead of making runs in behind did the USMNT no favors. When he came on, Josh Sargent was a marked improvement in this regard. And this is a place where players who weren’t called up, players like Jordan Pefok and Brandon Vazquez, could contribute even more.

These omissions are on Berhalter. I cannot blame him for missing players due to injury, but I can and do blame him for not realizing that the line up he chose was going to be too narrow and too static. I also blame him for failing to instill that sense of dynamism and urgency in his players. I tend to chalk this up to the relative youth of so many of our players and the unfortunate reality that so many key players have had so limited minutes playing together. But this Japan side was also quite young and inexperienced, and they wiped the floor with the US. People are right to raise criticism and questions, what with the World Cup so close at hand.

Closing Thoughts

The good news is that Wales cannot play like this. The Welsh squad has not demonstrated the kind of technical ability nor coordinated press that we saw from Japan. They are a Bunker-&-Counter team and are unlikely to take this approach for the US’s group opener at the World Cup. England and Iran, on the other hand, may approach things differently.

Weston McKennie was outright terrible in this one. He’s been a source of turnovers for a while, but this was just all-around a terrible display. Normally, we get a level of intensity, physicality, and forward thrust from the Juventus man. But for this one, his flaws, his lack of concentration and his limited technical range, were on show. I know he’s been coming back from injury, but he needs to recover that form. Or else, he probably becomes the man that gets dropped from the midfield. Speaking of the midfield...

The USMNT outnumbered Japan in the midfield and STILL got squished there. The US had a midfield trio of Adams, de la Torre, and McKennie, with Reyna and Ferreira tucking in, and they STILL got outrun by Japan’s midfield duo. That’s an effort problem. You need to get more concentration and more intensity there.

The USMNT continues to be weak away from home. Yeah, this was technically a neutral match, but this game continues a long trend where the US is far more limp than they should be while playing on the road. Unless it’s in Mexico’s Estadio Azteca, the US can’t seem to get the intensity and sharpness that they have while playing in the States. And, as it turns out, Doha isn’t in the United States.

There weren’t a lot of good performances in this one, but Matt Turner certainly gave one. There was a bit of concern that Turner, who is the number 2 with Arsenal, wouldn’t be sharp given his lack of playing time. But that wasn’t the case. He made a number of great saves and stood out as the one obvious positive take away from this match. I expect he’s just about gotten that starting spot for the USMNT locked up.

That is it from me. Give me your thoughts from the game...hit the comments.