The United States Men's National Team was put to the World Cup test last Friday against Japan, with the Americans falling well short of the mark. They failed to register a shot on goal and were intercepted 25 times by Japan's high press.
"The guys didn't look fresh. From a physical output, we just looked a step behind," head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. "I felt we were getting out-competed by Japan in the first half. We need to play with personality, we need to play relaxed, we need to play with intensity. When we do these things we're a really good team, but when we don't, we're an average team."
Last Friday was not the first time the U.S. looked flat on the pitch. World Cup qualifying saw further examples, including at El Salvador and the first half at Honduras to open the octagonal. But this team has also shown ample capacity to do the opposite. Everyone remembers the two trophies over Mexico last year, and the squad looked good in friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay this summer.
So, which USMNT will show up when the World Cup starts in 56 days? Ultimately, the nuances and even results of the high and lows do not matter in the grand scheme of things, but if the U.S. plays in like it did on Friday in the World Cup, the American's stay in Qatar will be short. The reaction against Saudi Arabia should be an indicator into how this team plays when backup options are gone.
Every team at a World Cup needs intensity, but this U.S. side seems to need it more than others. Results have frequently come down to desire instead of talent or tactics, so there is no better thing to practice in the squad's final tune-up match than intensity.
"I think it would have been effective if we stuck to the game plan, but sometimes I just felt that maybe we just started to search for individual solutions instead of sticking together, sticking to the match plan [and] staying disciplined in our game plan," said midfielder Tyler Adams.
Some may argue that Berhalter let his side down with tactics and lineup choices, but he explained after the match that many of his decisions, including all four halftime subs, were pre-planned. He needed time to evaluate players ahead of naming a final roster, something that will not be a factor in November. Should one of the other Group B teams employ a similar strategy as Japan, Berhalter could make more appropriate subs while changing his game plan to reflect the magnitude at hand.
Even if the U.S. loses again against Saudi Arabia, proving each player can perform at a high level at will while sticking to the game plan is vital. Maybe the final 26 selected will be able to summon that desire batter during the prestige of a World Cup, but doubts will start to creep in if this group can't at least prove their willingness to win tomorrow.
"We need to figure it out, because we have, obviously, high standards for ourselves, especially going into a World Cup in two months, so we need a better performance heading out of this camp," Adams said.