DÜSSELDORF, Germany — Even an optimist would struggle to pull more than a few positive signs from the United States men’s soccer team’s exhibition against Japan on Friday afternoon.
Matt Turner, one of the goalkeepers fighting for the No. 1 job, looked steady with his hands (though less so with his feet) while making athletic saves in both halves.
Nobody appeared to get hurt. The weather was pleasant.
Could that have been it?
In one of their final full-strength tuneups before stepping onto soccer’s biggest stage in November, the Americans lost, 2-0, in an all-around lackluster effort that will be seen, without a doubt, as a wasted opportunity for a group accelerating its preparations for the World Cup.
The Americans have another friendly lined up against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in Spain, the team’s last official match before their opening contest against Wales in Qatar.
Coach Gregg Berhalter observed during the week that some of his players appeared to be a bit “tight” — that is, hamstrung by nerves. He said that was understandable: There were jobs, life-changing ones, on the line for several players battling for spots on his roster.
But it will be worrying for him and the team’s fans that the unsteadiness continued so blatantly into Friday’s midday kickoff against Japan.
“The guys didn’t look fresh,” Berhalter said after the game. “From a physical output, we looked a step behind. A team like Japan will punish you.”
“It was a lack of comfort on the ball, silly giveaways. It wasn’t what we envisioned.”
The Americans, to be sure, were lacking some of their key personnel: Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah and Yunus Musah — three potential World Cup starters — were ruled out of the entire camp with injuries, and Christian Pulisic, the team’s biggest star, was scratched from the squad on Friday after sustaining an injury of his own in practice. Berhalter called Pulisic “day-to-day” with a “knock” he did not specify.
But against Japan, which is also headed to Qatar, the team’s problems felt larger than the absence of some players.
Japan applied steady pressure in the United States half from the opening whistle, and the Americans, with sloppy touches and erratic passing, struggled to work their way up the field with any semblance of intent. The U.S. finished the match without a single shot on target.
“We wish we showed our personality a little more on the field,” Turner said. “Obviously guys are disappointed.” Asked how much of concern the performance was, he said, “Better now than the first week in Qatar.”
Japan’s first goal was a microcosm of the Americans’ issues. The U.S. was trying to play the ball out of defense in the 24th minute when midfielder Weston McKennie nonchalantly turned the ball over. A couple of quick passes later, and with the American back line suddenly scrambling to recover, the ball found its way to Daichi Kamada, wide open on the left side of the penalty area, and he calmly curled it calmly inside the right post.
The Americans’ best chance had come earlier in the first half, when Sergiño Dest drove to the end line to the right of Japan’s goal and lofted an inch-perfect cross across the mouth of the Japanese goal, where Jesus Ferreira, one of the players in contention for the striker job, was waiting.
Gifted a chance directly onto his forehead, Ferreria blooped his header harmlessly over the crossbar, much the delight of the dense crowd of Japanese fans seated behind the net.
The crowd erupted again in the dying minutes of the game when Kaoru Motima capped a solo dribbling run down the left side by bending a shot skillfully into the lower right corner of the goal around Turner.
The Americans hung their heads. It was that sort of afternoon.