The Termination Checklist: Spencer’s dismissal all over the map

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source: Getty Images

PORTLAND, Ore. –

John Spencer’s job had been on the line for weeks, if you believed reports. That certainly seemed to be the case on June 24, when a home win over Seattle brought word the then-Timbers’ head coach had thanked his players for saving his job.

If true, the thanks seemed more like a joke than a confession. Why acknowledge the rumors? There was no feeling of besiegement around the Timbers – the kind of environment you see as relationships between ownership, staff, players (and sometimes, media) break apart. Take a man from L.A., drop him at training in Beaverton, he wouldn’t have been able to sense anything was wrong.

The home-road results might have had something to do with that. When Portland were in town, they were a happy team. Putting up a 5-2-2 (W-L-T) record at JELD-WEN Field, the Timbers always had reason to give the locals a happy face. Away from home, the Timbers were 0-6-2. Still, most of that frustration seeped out on the plane. Add in an off day after returning hope, and then next face the Timbers showed was one of determination: We’ve got to stop being Edward Hyde on the road.

The duality meant Spencer’s termination was always going surprise, even if the move had been rumored. With players content and the Timbers Army scarves up on Morrison Avenue, there was sense of Portlandia-irony to the circling vultures circling. They seemed out of place. Maybe vultures are a thing in Portland now?

The checklist, however – the mental list you go through when assessing whether a coach might be in trouble – didn’t single out Spencer. Results, ideas, attitude, relationships – Spencer wasn’t failing on all fronts.

Usually, by the time an organization decides to change coaches (often making the hard admission that they were wrong to hie him in the first place), almost all of these boxes need to be checked. Coaches have to leave their teams no outs, but with Spencer, most things seemed business as usual:

Dipping/flat lining results

The home-road schism had become worrisome. When Portland beat Seattle and immediately squandered the momentum by being routed in Colorado, the issue took center stage. After the mid-week win over San Jose, the reoccurring theme to everything post-game: How do we do this on the road? As evidenced in Sandy, Spencer still hadn’t figured it out. If anything, the Timbers were regressing, giving one of their worst performances of the year Saturday in Utah.

The broader picture was more promising. The Timbers had scraped their way back into the Western Conference playoff picture, even if they sat on the periphery. They were generally trending upward, and having played some of their best soccer of the year against San Jose (particularly in the first half), the silver lining on Spencer’s cloud was thickening.

But in that game, Portland again had troubles closing out the match. They looked shaky and desperate as they tried to hold their one goal lead. Most teams have looked the same against San Jose late in matches, but for Portland, it brought back early season memories of late match gaffs that pushed them to the Western Conference basement.

Verdict: Inconclusive

Lack of ideas

It seemed Spencer was trying to find the right combination. Darlington Nagbe has played everywhere in attack. Jack Jewsbury went from central midfielder to right back. Rodney Wallace went from left back to left wing. Everybody in the organization was a potential solution to the team’s width issues.

When the team showed improvement and started climbing the standings, Spencer’s tinkering slowed down. Until then, Spencer never stopped trying.

The roster’s very limited, having very few natural wide players. Kalif Alhassan has been injured for most of the season, and until his strong showing against San Jose, Frank Songo’o had given mixed results. The lack of options meant there was only so much tweaking Spencer could do. No matter how he lined his team up, the weaknesses were going to be the same.

Verdict: No

Lost the players

If a team goes into a slump, that’s a problem. If the players don’t believe they can recover, that’s a crisis. A coach can’t lose the dressing room in the best of times. When the team is struggling, it becomes a clear reason to move on.

Portland didn’t seem to have those problems. The players attitude toward Spencer hadn’t change. The respect was there. Occasionally a player would implicitly question a decision, but it rare, and there were no rebellions.

Troy Perkins’ comments after Saturday’s game were as strong as you’ll read, but there’s no singling out the coach:

“There were times we did what we wanted to do, and there were times when we completely had the blinders on. The first hour was okay. I felt the second half we were just chasing the game. We didn’t hold the ball up enough to get guys out and when we did we were too slow to get up.”

“It’s great when we’re at home, sure. At some point, you have to draw the line and say enough is enough. Everyone’s got to say it, do it, believe it, and whether or not we win at home doesn’t matter.  At this point we’ve got to win on the road.”

Verdict: No

Organizational malaise

Perhaps the Timbers front office wasn’t as openly supportive of Spencer as they’d been in the past, but given how the team’s performed this season, it would have seemed overcompensating if owner Merritt Paulsen trumpeted Spencer’s virtues on Twitter. Given the team’s expectations, the tone was appropriately reserved, and if there was conflict created from above, Spencer hadn’t given any hint.

That’s not to say everything was perfect, but the kind of cracks you normally see when a relationship deteriorates weren’t there. Every struggling team has tensions. Portland’s weren’t profound.

Verdict: Maybe, leaning toward no

Coach behavior showing cracks

Behind the scenes, who knows, but John Spencer’s public face always reflected his team’s struggles more than his own. When they improved, he expressed support. When they struggled, he criticized. Nothing seemed disproportionate. There were no meltdowns, shutdowns – nothing out of the ordinary. He led with the same direct, honest intensity that he’d shown all year. At no point did he tense up, start pointing fingers, or otherwise throw people under the bus. If he was fighting for his job, he didn’t take that fight public.

Verdict: No

Failure to meet expectations

Coming into the 2012 campaign, competing for the playoffs was expected. The subtext of those expectations: We’re going to the playoffs! It was something that was constantly mentioned at the beginning of the season, the optimism surrounding last season’s strong finish carried over into the new campaign. Now in mid-summer, it only occasionally comes up.

Setting aside the fairness of those expectations, they were there, particularly after Kris Boyd was inked to a big money deal. If Portland competed for the postseason with a misfiring Kenny Cooper, surely Boyd will push the Timbers into the playoffs. At least, that was the logic.

Portland’s still in the playoff picture, but they haven’t performed like a playoff team. They probably have not performed like ownership envisioned.  That vision undoubtedly includes a consistent, upward trajectory. Expansion teams don’t want to level off in their second season. The first season is a baseline upon which you have to improve. Unfortunately, the results say the Timbers were still in expansion mode.

Verdict: Yes

That the checklist paints a mixed picture explains why the move’s been met with mild surprise. Were it not for last month’s rumors, Spencer’s dismissal may have caught everybody off guard. You sit down and think about it and say Yeah, I guess Portland is struggling, but there was little in the day-to-day happenings that suggested Spencer would go. No fan discontent. No curious leaks in local media. No tension around the club.

Those my be symptoms of an idyllic existence: A new MLS team with a reverent, gregarious support capable of weathering these storms. That might not be good enough for an ownership group that paid  high price to enter Major League Soccer.

If Spencer’s termination does nothing else, it at least sends a message to the entire organization: 2012 has not been good enough.

The Gregg Berhalter era: USMNT boss’ record leading up to World Cup

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United States men’s national team Gregg Berhalter is set to become the 10th man to lead the USMNT into a World Cup when the Yanks take on Wales, England, and Iran for a knockout round spot in this winter’s Qatar-hosted tournament.

It’s a terrific honor and an earned one, as we learned when Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena butchered a tricky but very forgiving route to qualifying out of CONCACAF.

[ MORE: Five questions for the USMNT ]

Rating a USMNT coach is only going to become more difficult in the future given the rocketship-up trajectory of the sport in our country in both investment and development, but also because the Nations League format introduced into Europe and North America limits opportunity for cross-confederation tests.

Berhalter’s USMNT will enter the World Cup having played 56 times across all competitions assuming Tuesday’s Saudi Arabia friendly goes ahead as scheduled in Spain.

Forty-three of those matches will have come against CONCACAF foes. And several of the remaining 13 matches — Ecuador, Chile, Venezuela — came very early in his tenure.

Every one of those non-CONCACAF foes except Qatar, from the 2021 Gold Cup came in friendly competition. A few, like a win over Bosnia and Herzegovina, came outside of FIFA’s international window.

This makes it even harder to evaluate Berhalter’s tenure, especially because he’s succeeded in many of the brighest spots. Most notably, Berhalter led the Yanks to one of the most memorable wins in program history when the USMNT outlasted Mexico to win the first CONCACAF Nations League and soon after won the Gold Cup Final over Mexico with an almost totally different team.

And injury woes for Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams mean two of the side’s most important players leave a smaller sample sizes for scouts.

So what do we really know about Berhalter’s USMNT from on the pitch? Unfortunately for those scouting from Wales, England, and Iran… not a terrible amount. But let’s look at a pretty wild cycle.


Gregg Berhalter record as USMNT coach

Overall: 36W-9D-10L — 115 GF, 36 GA — 2.13 ppm
Friendlies: 12W-4D-5L — 43 GF, 17 GA — 1.90 ppm
World Cup qualifiers: 7W-4D-3L — 21 GF, 10 GA — 1.79 ppm
Nations League: 6W-1D-1L — 25 GF, 6 GA —
Gold Cup: 11W-0D-1L — 26 GF, 3 FA — 2.17 ppm (2019, 2021)


Gregg Berhalter record vs CONCACAF

Berhalter’s record against CONCACAF is pretty exceptional, even if it should be somewhat expected for a USMNT (or Mexico) tenure to include gaudy numbers against the confederation.

The Yanks having a winning record against every CONCACAF foe except for Canada, which is .500 at two wins, a draw, and two losses. Along the way, Berhalter’s men have punked essentially every nation that failed to qualify for the final round of World Cup qualifying.

That’s why Berhalter’s overall (all comps) goal differential is an almost silly +79. The USMNT under Berhalter is a combined 9-0 against Grenada, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao, Cuba, Haiti, and Martinique, rolling up 41 goals and allowing — checks proverbial notes — a single goal.

The U.S. has only lost to five CONCACAF rivals and only Mexico and Canada can boast multiple wins against the Americans (Jamaica, Costa Rica, and Panama have also beaten the U.S.).


Gregg Berhalter record vs everyone else

AFC (Asia)

Qatar 1-0 win
Japan 2-0 loss
Saudi Arabia — 2pm ET Tuesday

CONMEBOL (South America)

Uruguay 0-0 draw
Uruguay 1-1 draw
Venezuela 3-0 loss
Chile 1-1 draw
Ecuador 1-0 win

CAF (Africa)

Morocco 3-0 win

UEFA (Europe)

Bosnia and Herzegovina 1-0 win
Switzerland 2-1 loss
Northern Ireland 2-1 win
Wales 0-0 draw

Saudi Arabia vs USMNT: How to watch, live stream link, TV, team news

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Fair or not, Tuesday’s edition of Saudi Arabia vs USMNT is going to be scrutinized as much as any friendly in recent United States men’s national team history.

Gregg Berhalter’s men looked like sloppy at best and rudderless at worst in Friday’s 2-0 loss to Japan in Dusseldorf and that’s incredibly alarming with the Yanks on the precipice of their World Cup return, a time when teams are usually questioning the fine-tuning rather than, well, a whooooooooole lot.

Let’s be very fair to Berhalter, who has a young team and has overseen some memorable and downright awesome triumphs in CONCACAF: There are injuries right now — Christian Pulisic was rested with a knock on Friday — and the coach does not have access to Timothy Weah, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Chris Richards.

[ MORE: What we learned from Japan vs USA | Player ratings ]

But his judgment is being questioned with Fulham captain Tim Ream, Union Berlin center forward Jordan Pefok, and Benfica back John Brooks healthy and ready to contribute but sitting at home. Berhalter has questioned their fits in the system and also said something nebulous about the team not expressing its “personality” versus Japan and that sounds pretty bad when the system looks awful.

That’s why a big performance against a solid and stubborn Saudi Arabia, a team in theory selected for its similarities to World Cup group stage foe Iran, can really provide a ubiquitous lift to spirits in the world of U.S. Soccer. And while Berhalter might claim that lift is only needed amongst the fans, he’d be kidding himself.

Remember: While the entirety of U.S. Soccer wants the side to go deep in Qatar, this is supposed to be setting the stage for a real challenge for the trophy on home soil in 4.5 years. At the moment, that sounds silly. A year-and-a-half ago, late in the night against Mexico, it did not. Fixing that would be a good first step, and Tuesday’s the next chance.


How to watch Saudi Arabia vs USMNT live, updates and start time

Date: Tuesday, September 27
Kick off time: 2pm ET
Where: Estadio Nuevo Condomina, Murcia, Spain
How to watch: FS1, UnimasTUDN


Saudi Arabia vs USMNT head-to-head record

This will be the seventh meeting between the Yanks and Green Falcons, but the first since 1999 against a national team representing political issues for the United States. Saudi Arabia won two of the first four but the Yanks claimed home soil wins in a 1995 friendly and the 1999 Confederations Cup. All of the on-field mentions above mean absolutely nothing for Tuesday but they are fun to note on a pre-match preview (Upside-down smile face emoji).


The lowdown on Saudi Arabia

This is a very Saudi Arabia experienced side, one that went 13W-4D-1L in World Cup qualifying and have experience in a lot of 1-0 contests including recent Spain-based friendly losses to Colombia and Venezuela. The team will also feel at home in Murcia, where it played those matches and where it had a scoreless tangle with Ecuador four days prior to this tilt. Ecuador outshot the Saudis 11-5 and had 60 percent of the ball but all that will get you an argument that you deserved better than a solitary point that comes from a real match. If you want to see your Yanks break down a sound team, Tuesday’s a good chance.


USMNT team news, injuries, lineup

This is easily the most interesting lineup in some time for the USMNT after Berhalter gave starting looks to some of his lynchpins and got a mixed bag of results, none of which were exceptional aside from goalkeeper Matt Turner (and even he was not at his best in possession on an admittedly poor pitch in Dusseldorf) and Brenden Aaronson if we’re being judicious in the name of optimism. But really, all of the front three were ghosts. Much of is down to the eight men behind them, though, and forgiving glances can be cast at Aaronson and Giovanni Reyna. Jesus Ferreira is not included after missing a chance that would and could be called a sitter if he didn’t have to jump to head it (We kid, but it’s dark humor).

Aaron Long was very poor and Walker Zimmerman uncharacteristically poor next to him, while youngster Sam Vines had a rough first half before Berhalter adjusted his usage from left back to left wing back with emphasis on the wing part. Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are often the heartbeat of this team but both looked a mix of cavalier and junior varsity. That won’t happen often, and very rarely will occur at the same time.

Here’s what to watch from Berhalter’s lineup choices, presuming he doesn’t change his formation.

  • If Matt Turner starts — and then stays healthy and relatively blunder-free at Arsenal — forget about anyone else starting the World Cup opener in Qatar. If it’s Ethan Horvath or presumed No. 3 Sean Johnson, well, anything’s possible.
  • We’ll see Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, but will it be Luca de la Torre completing the midfield trio? Will Kellyn Acosta or Johnny Cardoso arrive to move McKennie into a different role? Will Malik Tillman get his chance to start? Or will Giovanni Reyna be played in position (please?)?
  • Ricardo Pepi: The way Josh Sargent was plugged into the front three in the second half, it seems like FC Dallas star Ferreira and alum Pepi were meant to trade starts.
  • Christian Pulisic will start on the wing. How does he look, both in form and body language?
  • Sergino Dest and Sam Vines were the fullbacks versus Japan, with Reggie Cannon coming off the bench. Will it be Joe Scally and DeAndre Yedlin to start? Will Dest swap to left back? Antonee Robinson and Dest are the favorites to start in Qatar, but is the latter’s spot on the right now in question?
  • Much of U.S. Soccer, us included, considered this break to be a bunch of center backs bidding to play next to Walker Zimmerman in Qatar. Will it be Zimmerman plus one on Tuesday or something else?

UEFA Nations League: Schedule, how to watch, stream, TV, standings

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UEFA Nations League champions France will not go back-to-back, and Portugal is behind Spain in its bid to return to the throne room, highlighting the odds that a new Nations League winner will be crowned at the end of third edition of the tournament.

England, Wales, and Poland have also been eliminated from contention and are faced with the concept of relegation to UEFA Nations League B with just two matches left in the group stage.

France is also in early danger of not making it to back to League A, but can feel better by beating nearest combatant Austria on Thursday.

[ MORE: European Nations League hub — Scores, stats ]

Group A4 is the opposite sort of fight, Belgium and the Netherlands have both played very well and could see League A’s highest point total up for grabs in a meeting that could be for a semifinal place come Sunday.

UEFA Nations Leagues B, C, and D also have drama built into the final days as Ukraine and Scotland are jockeying for promotion in B1; Russia’s punishment has left B2 promotion open to Israel, Iceland, and Albania. B4 sees Erling Haaland, Martin Odegaard, and Norway fighting to join League A for the next cycle.

There’s also drama as Kazakhstan and Georgia currently lead their League C groups, with Latvia and Estonia in League D’s best spots.


UEFA Nations League live: How to watch, stream links

When: June 1, 2022 – March 26, 2024
TV rights: Fox Sports
Stream: Fox Sports Live, Fubo TV


UEFA Nations League A, Group 1

Croatia– 3-1-1, 10 pts
Denmark — 3-0-2, 9 pts
France — 1-2-2, 5 pts
Austria — 1-1-3, 4 pts

Next fixtures

Thursday
France 2-0 Austria
Croatia 2-1 Denmark

Sunday
Denmark vs France
Austria vs Croatia

UEFA Nations League A, Group 2

Portugal — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Spain — 2-2-0, 8 pts
Switzerland — 2-0-3, 6 pts
Czech Republic — 1-1-3, 4 pts

Next fixtures

Saturday
Czech Republic 0-4 Portugal
Spain 1-2 Switzerland

Wednesday
Portugal vs Spain
Switzerland vs Czech Republic

UEFA Nations League A, Group 3

Hungary — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Italy — 2-2-1, 8 pts
Germany — 1-3-1, 6 pts
England — 0-2-3, 2 pts [RELEGATED]

Next fixtures

Friday
Italy 1-0 England
Germany 0-1 Hungary

Tuesday
England vs Germany
Hungary vs Italy

UEFA Nations League A, Group 4

Netherlands — 4-1-0, 13 pts
Belgium — 3-1-1, 10 pts
Poland — 1-1-3, 4 pts
Wales — 0-1-4, 1 pt

Next fixtures

Thursday
Poland 0-2 Netherlands
Belgium 2-1 Wales

Sunday
Netherlands vs Belgium
Wales vs Poland

Japan vs USMNT: Alarming defeat for Berhalter’s boys

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The USMNT lost to Japan after a hugely underwhelming performance from Gregg Berhalter’s side just 59 days before they kick off their World Cup campaign.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

Dachai Kamada put Japan 1-0 up in the first half as the Samurai Blue were sharper throughout and the USMNT just couldn’t cope with their high-pressing, as Kaoru Mitoma curled home a beauty to make it 2-0 and seal the deserved win.

Berhalter’s USMNT had zero shots on goal, as they looked disjointed and befuddled throughout a very disappointing display in Dusseldorf, Germany.

With Christian Pulisic missing this game due to an injury, plus many other missing this camp, perhaps the USMNT can point to that having a huge impact on their performance.

However, there are now just 90 minutes of action separating the USMNT from the World Cup and unless they improve dramatically against Saudi Arabia next week, there will be a lot of pressure mounting on Berhalter’s young side.


What we learned from Japan vs USMNT

Huge number of giveaways a massive concern: In the first 35 minutes the USMNT gave the ball away 28 times in their own defensive third. 28. That rose to 39 times in a first half where they just couldn’t connect a pass and in defense and midfield they look so far off it. Weston McKennie’s horrible giveaway led to Japan’s opener and the USMNT never looked comfortable in possession. Yes, the pitch may have been bobbly but that didn’t impact Japan. Gregg Berhalter loves to play out of the back but Japan’s high-pressing befuddled the USMNT and they didn’t have a Plan B. On this showing  Wales, England and Iran press the U.S. high in November, they will have plenty of joy. Yes, the USMNT were missing Cameron Carter-Vickers, Antonee Robinson, Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah due to injury but there is no way this display should have been this disjointed.

Center back remains a big problem: Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman owe Matt Turner a beer, or three, as he made big stops to bail them out. Both of the USMNT’s center backs made huge mistakes in the first half and Turner came up with saves to stop Japan from making the most of it. With all the talk around who will partner Zimmerman at center back in Qatar, we have more questions than answers after this display. There is perhaps a feeling that Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards may actually be a better pairing and Long and even Mark McKenzie may have played themselves out of the World Cup squad.

Japan a clinical finisher away from being very good: Okay, so now is probably not the time to panic for the USMNT as Japan are a very good team. They have a very tough group in the World Cup as they face Spain, Germany and Costa Rica in Group E. On this showing, they will give the powerhouses of Spain and Germany a run for their money. If Japan had a clinical forward, they would cause huge problems for opponents in Qatar. In midfield they are so slick and tidy and cause massive problems with their high-pressing.

Matt Turner is the first-choice goalkeeper: The main positive (perhaps only positive) to come from this game is that Matt Turner is the clear starter for the USMNT. He has only played once for Arsenal so far this season but he looks very sharp, made three important saves and he is ahead of Zack Steffen in the pecking order. Turner will get plenty of minutes in the Europa League and League Cup before the World Cup so he will be ready to roll in November.


Tactical focus

Japan pressed high in a 4-4-2 formation and let Long and Zimmerman have the ball and they were tasked with building out from the back. That did not go well for the USMNT in the first half as the gave the ball away so many times and Japan pressed in numbers, kept the ball well and should have scored a few goals early on. In the second half Sam Vines was asked to push further forward by Gregg Berhalter when the U.S. had the ball and basically play as a left winger. That meant the USMNT played in a 3-4-2-1 formation and although it left them a bit exposed defensively it at least helped them get on the front foot a little more in the second half. Still, there was still no fluency in midfield and attack to sustain any kind of pressure. Japan stopped the USMNT building from the back and the U.S. really had no Plan B.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]


What’s next?

A trip to the Murcia, Spain on Tuesday, Sept. 27 as they face Saudi Arabia in a friendly, their final game before the World Cup kicks off in November.


How to watch Japan vs USMNT live, updates and start time

Date: Friday, September 23
Kick off time: 8:25am ET
Where: Dusseldorf Arena, Germany
How to watch: ESPN 2, UnimasTUDN


Japan vs USMNT live analysis! – By Joe Prince-Wright

FULL TIME: Japan 2-0 USMNT. A very disappointing defeat and Gregg Berhalter will have plenty of concerns after witnessing that.

GOALLL! Mitoma curls home a beauty. Game. Set. Match. Japan have been excellent.

Brenden Aaronson whips a shot just wide. That is the closest the USMNT have come in the second half.

20 minutes to go in Dusseldorf. Not much going on for the USMNT.

SAVE! Matt Turner with a fine low stop to deny Kamada. McKenzie with the mistake and Kamada cut inside Cannon but Turner tipped it away. Japan pushing for the second.

Japan have settled down again and are knocking it around nicely. The U.S. bench are screaming for their players to get up the field.

A bit better from the USMNT in the second half. Sam Vines is being asked to push further up on the left flank. The U.S. are exposed defensively but at least have a few more options in attack.

Sargent, Morris, McKenzie and Cannon on at HT for the USMNT. Ferreira, Reyna, Long and Dest subbed off. Big 45 minutes coming up for the USMNT to see if they can get into this game.

HALF TIME: That was very poor from the USMNT. Japan deservedly lead and they should be ahead by more. No attacking intent from the U.S. whatsoever and so many bad giveaways.

Japan are totally in control here. They are knocking it around nicely and the USMNT just can’t keep the ball.

GOALLLL! 1-0 to Japan. Daichi Kamada finishes after another poor giveaway in midfield from USMNT, this time from McKennie. VAR used to give the goal after it was initially ruled out for offside. Japan totally deserve this lead. USA have been absolutely all over the place and could be down by at least a couple of goals.

Japan look so slick on the ball in the final third. USMNT just can’t deal with the speed of passing and movement. Being stretched all over the place.

SAVE! Great stop by Matt Turner to deny Kamada after a terrible giveaway from Walker Zimmerman. Japan should be 1-0 up. USMNT’s center back duo of Aaron Long and Zimmerman have both given the ball away very cheaply already which has led to Japan’s best chances. Not great.

CHANCE! Big opportunity for the USMNT, as Sergino Dest surges down the right and clips in a lovely cross to Jesus Ferreira. Six yards out and unmarked but he heads over. That’s a great chance wasted.

Pretty slow tempo to start this game. The grass looks pretty long on this pitch.

Aaron Long with a bad giveaway and Japan get a shot on target. They should have made more of that.

KICK OFF: We are underway in Dusseldorf! Luca de la Torre surges down the right but his cross is blocked. There is quite a racket inside the stadium with lots of drums but there aren’t many fans.

An update on Pulisic sounds more positive and he could actually face Saudi Arabia next week.

In terms of the actual players who will be facing Japan, there aren’t really any surprises here.

Sergino Dest starts at right back, Walker Zimmerman captains the side at center back and Luca de la Torre starts in central midfield alongside McKennie and Adams. Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson start as they will support Jesus Ferreira.

BREAKING team news: This is not great news for the USMNT. Christian Pulisic has been injured in training and will play no part against Japan. U.S. Soccer released a statement saying that Pulisic would be monitored and his availability for the game against Saudi Arabia next Tuesday will be determined soon. More details below, but this is a blow for Berhalter.

Hello and good morning! Get that coffee pot fired up and strap in for a key World Cup warm-up game for the USMNT. Only 180 minutes separates Gregg Berhalter’s boys from the World Cup in Qatar in November and this game against Japan is a huge opportunity for plenty of players.


Key storylines

The big storylines swirling around the USMNT ahead of these friendlies seem to have been swirling around this young team for much of the last two years: who is going to play up front and who will be the second center back?

With red-hot Jordan Pefok surprisingly left off this roster despite his incredible start to the season for Bundesliga leaders Union Berlin, the duo of Ricardo Pepi and Josh Sargent have been given one final chance to prove themselves to Berhalter. Gio Reyna is back in the squad, which is a huge boost, and it gives Berhalter so many options in the attacking midfield areas. How will he squeeze Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic and Reyna into the same starting lineup? Can he?

At center back things have been complicated by injuries to Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards, who were set to battle it out to see who starts alongside Walker Zimmerman at the World Cup. The likes of Aaron Long, Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown will see this as a huge opportunity to make the roster as it seems unlikely Miles Robinson will make the squad following his Achilles injury. Yunus Musah being out with an injury is a blow as he was certain to start alongside Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie in midfield. In goal, Zack Steffen is out after being out injured and only just returning so Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson will battle it out for that third and final goalkeeping spot with Matt Turner now looking like the starter as he gets the nod to start against Japan.


Brenden Aaronson explains USMNT’s excitement

Leeds United playmaker Brenden Aaronson has had a fine start to his Premier League career over the last few months and the 21-year-old is fired up with the World Cup just two months away.

“It’s crazy to think how close the World Cup is, it’s at the back of your head,” Aaronson told reporters. “With Leeds at the moment I really haven’t had a chance to think about it but it’s really growing. Seeing the guys again and thinking ‘wow, this is the last two games before the World Cup comes.’ It comes as you fast. I think the preparation and what we’ve done over the last years, we’re all ready to go and we are all looking forward to it.”


Japan vs USMNT head-to-head record

This will be just the third meeting all-time between Japan and the USMNT, as the first meeting in 1993 in Tokyo saw the hosts run out 3-1 winners with Hugo Perez grabbing the USA’s only goal. The last time these teams met was in 2006 as the USMNT won 3-2 in San Francisco as goals from Eddie Pope, Clint Dempsey and Taylor Twellman put them 3-0 up and the U.S. held on for victory.


The lowdown on Japan

This is a very experienced side with captain Maya Yoshida (114 caps) marshalling the back line, plus full back Yuto Nagatoma (136 caps) and goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima (95 caps) also mainstays in this squad for at least a decade, plus Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu a key part of their defense. Daichi Kamada (Frankfurt), Ritsu Doan (Freiburg), Kyogo Furuhashi (Celtic) and Takumi Minamino (Monaco) are attacking talents to look out for. Japan and their boss Hajime Moriyasu know they have been handed a tough assessment at the World Cup but they’re usually very good at exceeding expectations and they breezed through qualifying in the Asian Football Confederation to reach their seventh-straight World Cup.


USMNT team news, injuries, lineup

With injuries in defense and midfield, opportunities have popped up all over the place for USMNT players to make one final statement before the World Cup roster is announced. Many expected  Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie to get plenty of minutes at center back, but Aaron Long starts alongside Zimmerman. While there is a bit of a battle at left back with Antonee Robinson missing this squad with injury. Can Joe Scally and Sam Vines give Berhalter even more headaches in the full back area? Following his great start to the season with Antwerp, Vines starts at left back in this game against Japan.

Luca de la Torre starts in midfield alongside Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, while up top is where this will get really intriguing. Berhalter will try to give balance to his side but also get all of his top attacking talents in the game at the same time. Berhalter has mentioned both Reyna and Aaronson will be looked at in a deeper central midfield role but with Christian Pulisic being out with an injury, Reyna and Aaronson start out wide. Duo Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi haven’t grabbed the No. 9 jersey from Jesus Ferreira, for now, as the FC Dallas star gets the nod up top.