Josh Sargent is a candidate for striker. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
There are several ways to break down the U.S. men’s national team inept performance against Japan on Friday.
If you’re an optimist, you can note that it wasn’t the World Cup and that there is some time to resolve the many issues and headaches the squad displayed during a 2-0 defeat to Japan.
One way may be to pray to the soccer gods.
Because if you are a pessimist and even a realists, you know there is only one friendly to get things right or face the ultimate consequence of World Cup failure in Qatar (less than two months away). That would be the inability to get out of the group stage, which the U.S. has experienced quite the problem every time it has played six or seven hours away from its time zone (1934, 1990, 1998 and 2006 World Cups).
Yes, I realize that for the first time in a generation, there is no USMNT keeper who is a starter for a European side.
Saying that, Matt Turner reminded us how good he is in the Japan fiasco and that he should be considered the No. 1 netminder entering Qatar, even if he is No. 2 at Arsenal. Zack Steffen, who has been head coach Gregg Berhalter’s favorite, has been hampered by injuries during his time at Middlesbrough in the English Championship.
Barring a sudden change of fortune, Turner is the man.
Turner’s star rose while the backline’s took a dive on Friday.
Center backs Aaron Long, who didn’t seem at 100 percent after returning from last year’s Achilles injury, and Walker Zimmerman didn’t have it it vs. Japan. Their marking and passing, of lack thereof, was downright awful. The problem is that the USA’s center back depth is pretty thin due to Atlanta United’s Miles Robinson rupturing his Achilles tendon in May.
If the center backs are giving away gifts to the opposition, especially technical sides such as Japan, that spells double trouble down the road.
No defender distinguished himself against Japan.
Right back Sergino Dest, who was loaned from Barcelona to A.C. Milan with hopes of getting some more playing time, played well defensively, but did not make the most out of his attacking ability. On the left flank, Antonee Robinson’s injury has left a big hole as he excelled on both sides of the ball for the USA. Sam Vines, who started on Friday, struggled.
I realize it sounds cliché, but a team’s success can start and end with its midfield. If it is not controlling the midfield of the field, there is a good chance its teammates are chasing the game.
If all the stars align, the best USA threesome in the middle of midfield would boast Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah. That’s the Americans’ best option. If they duplicate the Japanese performance against Saudi Arabia or in Qatar, the USMNT will be in big, big trouble. Adams needs to play up to his potential as a ball-winner. Luca de la Torre, who replaced the injured Musah in the Starting XI, was not up to the task.
When you’re competing in such a short season as the World Cup, you don’t necessarily need someone who can fill the net on a regular basis, unless you are gunning for the championship.
A player who can give you one timely goal or even two, and now I am pushing it for the USA – three – in the opening round – should suffice to push the team into the knockout stage.
But does Berhalter have such a player, whether he is a No. 9 or a wing.
Perhaps it will be Christian Pulisic, who needs to be healthy and fit to be able to run at the opposition (Pulisic didn’t play Friday due to a knock he suffered in training, although he is expected to play Tuesday)
Maybe it will be Brenden Aaronson, who brings seemingly endless energy to whatever game in which he plays.
Ricardo Pepi might look good in training, but if he isn’t putting the ball away on a regular basis as a No. 9, can any team rely on him for success, especially in such a short tournament? Unless he starts filling the net for Groningen in the Netherlands on a regular basis, placing him on the World Cup roster appears to be a big gamble.
Josh Sargent, who is on a tear with Norwich City in the English Championship, could be the answer if can continue his high level of play and finishing as a No. 9 at the international level.
At the World Cup and high-level international soccer, you might get one, maybe two if you are fortunate, to put the ball away. Jesus Ferreira had such an opportunity early as a striker on Friday, but sent a header over the net. He never threatened again after that.
Gio Reyna, who also can play the midfield, could be a question mark. His club team, Borussia Dortmund, has used him sparingly because Reyna is returning from a serious hamstring injury from last season. Can he can full throttle for the USA for an hour or 70 minutes?
Then there is the elephant who is not in the room or with the team for the final two friendlies.
That would be Jordan Pefok, who has gotten off to a ridiculously strong start for Union Berlin, which is in first place in the Bundesliga at the break (yes, I said first place), has three goals and as many assists in seven matches.
Berhalter mentioned that Pefok wasn’t out of the picture, but watching the coach in action over the past three years, there is little doubt he likes to play favorites.
Is Berhalter just paying him lip service or will Pefok be among the 26 by the FIFA World Cup deadline of Nov. 9?
Even if Pefok doesn’t necessarily fit into Berhalter’s system, he could be a weapon coming in off the bench in the second half if the Americans find themselves trailing.
There is such little time and few way to make quick fixes.
After the September window, players will return to their club teams and finish up a crammed fixture schedule until November. After catching a very quick short breath, they will join their respective national sides. There will be little or no time to play friendlies, although some teams will try to hold them in the desert.
Moreover, there won’t be a long time to train the entire team together and on the same page to iron out whatever problems there may be (so many things wrong with a winter World Cup, but that’s another issue for another time).
At the international level, you can’t trade, transfer or add players to bulk up a team, you are stuck with what you’ve got.
And as a veteran World Cup attendee and watcher, at the present time, the USA doesn’t have it. Wish I could say otherwise.
I challenge the the players and coaching staff to surprise me, starting against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain on Tuesday and then against Wales, England and Iran in Qatar starting in November.
It will be a great disappointment if the USMNT fails to at least play well and get out of the group stage.
One thing I have learned is that you can pray to the soccer gods all you want, but ultimately, you need to prove it on the field.
Does the USA have it?
Guess we’ll have to wait beyond Saudi Arabia to find out.
I challenge the team to prove me and many soccer observers, supporters and media wrong.