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USMNT seeks brighter performance in last test ahead of World Cup

Christian Pulisic, seen here at training camp in Cologne, Germany, last week, is slated to start for a U.S. squad seeking to rebound from a 2-0 defeat to Japan on Friday. (Martin Meissner/AP)

The final test for the U.S. men’s national soccer team before the World Cup will come Tuesday against Saudi Arabia on Spain’s southeastern coast.

And while the result of a friendly two months out will be largely forgotten by the time the Americans arrive at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium outside Doha, Qatar, for their opener against Wales, they recognize the importance of performing far better than they did in the next-to-last tuneup.

That 2-0 defeat to Japan on Friday in Düsseldorf, Germany, wasn’t as close as the score suggested, triggering alarms about the team’s preparedness for the sport’s biggest competition.

After Tuesday’s friendly, all that remains in Coach Gregg Berhalter’s four-year buildup is finalizing his roster before the Nov. 9 announcement. There are no more full-squad camps, regional tournaments or FIFA match windows to calibrate tactics and appraise prospects.

USMNT, sloppy and meek, falls to Japan in dreary World Cup tuneup

As preparations wind down, Berhalter needs to see marked improvement in Murcia, Spain.

“It was a poor performance,” he said Monday, reflecting on the defeat. “We got our butts kicked, and we’re not proud of it. … We want to play better this game. It starts with the collective — us playing together, more cohesive — and if we do that, we’ll be fine.”

On Friday, the collective was fractured, and, aside from goalkeeper Matt Turner, none of the 16 players who got into the game distinguished themselves. Was that performance an anomaly during an otherwise encouraging two years or a sign of brewing trouble?

“Better now than the first game in Qatar,” Turner said after Friday’s stinker. “It doesn’t really concern me.”

As a starting point, Berhalter’s concern Friday was his team’s inability to solve problems and to play high-intensity soccer. From a technical standpoint, the Americans made unforced defensive errors, turned the ball over carelessly, failed to adapt to Japan’s pressing tactics and struggled to generate many quality opportunities.

On Tuesday, Berhalter will receive a boost from the return to Christian Pulisic, the star attacker who missed the Japan match with an unspecified injury. Berhalter said Pulisic will start.

A part-time starter at Chelsea, Pulisic has not had many opportunities to shine in the Premier League or Champions League this season. Berhalter said he will “just let Christian be Christian.”

“He does a great job of changing the game in moments,” Berhalter said. “And that’s all he needs to do. He doesn’t need to do anything more than he’s done in the past. He just needs to be himself.”

DeAndre Yedlin, a prime candidate to start at right back, said the team is eager to see Pulisic back on the field.

“Christian is a guy that’s always motivated — he always wants to play,” Yedlin said. “It will be very good to have him back, and obviously when he does well, it’s better for us.”

Gio Reyna is happy and healthy. That’s good news for the USMNT.

Berhalter also said he will start Ricardo Pepi at striker, replacing Jesús Ferreira, who on Friday missed a golden chance in the opening moments. Josh Sargent, a halftime sub against Japan, and Jordan Pefok, who wasn’t invited to this camp, are also in the mix at a position that remains unsettled as the World Cup nears.

“I don’t need [Pepi] to score five goals,” Berhalter said. “We need him to play like a forward in our system and hopefully he gets opportunities — and hopefully takes the opportunities. It’s stuff that he’s done before for us.”

Not in a long time, though. He last scored for the United States in October 2021 and, since moving to Europe from MLS last winter, has scored one league goal.

To score Tuesday, he’ll need service — something the U.S. midfield failed to provide Friday for Ferreira in the first half and Sargent in the second. Japan’s press stymied U.S. efforts to mount an attack. No doubt, the Saudis took notes.

Josh Sargent, surging at the right time, is back in the fold with the USMNT

Berhalter also reiterated Monday that he thinks the impending roster decisions are getting to some players on his young squad. The United States is expected to have the youngest roster at the World Cup.

“There’s stress involved, and there’s outside factors that affect performance,” he said. “We should at least acknowledge that and say that the guys were tense [vs. Japan]. It’s our job as coaches to put them at ease.”

It wasn’t just players on the bubble who stumbled Friday, though.

“Naturally, guys are going to be nervous. Naturally, guys know what’s at stake,” said Yedlin, a 2014 World Cup veteran. “We all love each other here, and we’re all trying to obviously make this team, so it’s down to crunchtime now.”

Note: Software executive JT Batson, who has deep ties in grass-roots soccer programs and served on two U.S. Soccer Federation bodies, was named the USSF’s chief executive and secretary general. Batson, 40, will start right away. He succeeds Will Wilson, who announced in June that he would leave this fall after 2½ years in the job. Batson, a Stanford graduate, has held positions on the USSF’s finance committee and development fund.