DÜSSELDORF, Germany — The World Cup is just two months away, and if the United States’ penultimate tuneup Friday was a window into how Gregg Berhalter’s squad will fare in Qatar, it’s going to be a short stay.
Japan’s late goal provided a final margin more indicative of the gap between the teams.
“We’ve got work to do,” Berhalter said. “We clearly need to improve.”
The Americans are running out of time. They will play Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Murcia, Spain, then won’t regroup until about a week before their tournament kicks off Nov. 21 against Wales.
“We lacked a little bit of everything,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “A bump in the road eventually has to come. Sometimes you need to get knocked down and a little bit humbled again. Yeah, our team is young, but I think today maybe we were a little bit naive.”
Several absences, including star attacker Christian Pulisic, factored into the display, but there was no excusing the disconnect and general inferiority against an opponent that is headed to the World Cup for the seventh consecutive time but is not global elite by any means.
Questions resurfaced about the central defense and Berhalter’s choice of strikers for this last get-together before the approaching storm.
Despite positive vibes after four days of training in nearby Cologne, the U.S. team “didn’t look fresh, and from a physical output, we just looked a step behind,” Berhalter said.
He added, “It’s hard to tell if this evaluation period [before the roster is finalized Nov. 9] is affecting them.”
That might have been true in some individual cases, but collectively “it could have been more competitive,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said.
“We could have gotten into more duels. [The Japanese] were really up for it, and it showed,” Turner said. “We wish we showed our personality a little bit more.”
Much of the U.S. personality originates with Pulisic, who was hurt during the week. (In soccer parlance, he “took a knock” and is day-to-day.) The setback was not revealed until 75 minutes before kickoff.
Had this been a World Cup match, Pulisic probably would have been in uniform. As a precaution, the U.S. Soccer Federation said, he was held out.
Pulisic was the only late scratch, but seven ailing others in contention for a roster spot were out of the running before camp even started: goalkeeper Zack Steffen, left back Antonee Robinson, center backs Chris Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers, midfielders Yunus Musah and Cristian Roldan, and forward Tim Weah.
Robinson and Musah are full-time starters, while Steffen, Richards and Weah are starting contenders. The absences opened starting slots for left back Sam Vines and central midfielder Luca de la Torre.
Regardless of profile and experience, none of the U.S. players received favorable reviews except Turner, who made three excellent saves.
“We weren’t up to our normal standards, and that’s almost across the board,” Berhalter said. “It’s disappointing. It’s a great opportunity for us, and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Japan featured a 30-man roster with 22 players from European clubs, including seven based in Germany. That was the impetus to host two friendlies in this FIFA match window — Samurai Blue will also play Ecuador here Tuesday — and Düsseldorf was the venue choice because of a large Japanese community. Still, the announced crowd was just 5,149 at the 54,000-seat stadium.
The Americans were under early pressure, caused, in part, by their own miscues. Center back Aaron Long was a conspicuous culprit.
“Just not a great start for us,” said captain Walker Zimmerman, Long’s partner in central defense. “A lot of their chances came from our mistakes.”
In the seventh minute, though, the Americans generated the first high-quality opportunity. Jesús Ferreira missed a header from close range.
Defensive frailties continued. Turner bailed out Zimmerman with a reflex save on Daichi Kamada’s low threat. In the 24th minute, Japan went ahead on Kamada’s angled strike.
The sequence began with Weston McKennie making a bad back pass from the center circle. Japan pounced against the slow-reacting Americans. Pushed up field, right back Sergiño Dest was well out of position. With acres of space, Kamada floated into the penalty area, received Hidemasa Morita’s pass and drove a 12-yard one-timer into the far corner.
Initially, the goal was nullified by an offside flag, but video replay restored it.
With more unforced errors, an inability to solve Japan’s high press and the attack stagnant, the Americans did not accomplish anything in the first half.
“They kind of knew what to expect, and it was almost like they were thinking a few things before us,” Turner said. “And I think it took us too long to adapt to the game.”
Berhalter made four prearranged changes at halftime and two more midway through the half. His team was better composed but still meek. Turner kept them in the game with multiple saves.
Brenden Aaronson missed with a promising look from the top of the box in the 80th minute. Eight minutes later, Kaoru Mitoma made an assertive run on the left side, beat passive defender Reggie Cannon, warded off Adams and curled a 15-yard shot beyond Turner’s reach.
“We need to play with personality. … We need to play with intensity,” Berhalter said. “And when we do these things, we’re a really good team. When we don’t, we’re an average team.”
On this dour afternoon, 59 days before the Americans return to the World Cup, “average” was more than generous.