By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 22, 2022) US Soccer Players – Thanks mainly to COVID-19, the USMNT has faced just seven non-Concacaf opponents in the past three years. A long pandemic shutdown followed by an intensely compacted World Cup qualifying process imposed those limitations. Now, with Qatar 2022 fast approaching, the challenges and lessons of a new adversary are one of the most urgent priorities of the September international window, starting with Friday’s clash with Japan in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Like the USMNT, the Asian power is counting down to the World Cup. The Samurai Blue got a tough assignment in Group E, where they will face Germany, Spain, and Costa Rica, in that order. They, too, are eagerly looking beyond their region in preparation. While the United States will move on to Murcia, Spain for Tuesday’s match vs Saudi Arabia, Japan remains in Dusseldorf to play Ecuador. Japan also announced a friendly with Canada in the United Arab Emirates on November 17.
With as little as a week between the pause of club schedules and the World Cup’s opener, this year’s unprecedented calendar gives national team coaches far less time than usual for pre-tournament camps and warm-up matches. That’s raised the stakes here.
“The June friendlies were a very good opportunity for us to have experience against Morocco, Uruguay, based on different types of teams, different level of competition, and I thought we handled it really well,” defender Walker Zimmerman told reporters in a Tuesday media availability. “We’re controlling what we can control. We can’t control the opponent. But there’s certainly ways that we can improve, whether it’s Concacaf or European friendlies. So we’re looking at these two games, certainly as building blocks to play against some really good competition and make sure that we’re fine-tuning what we need to heading into November.”
Friday will pose a stiff test by any measure. The four-time AFC Asian Cup champion has throttled up the intensity of its possession-oriented setup with high pressing and quick transitions, usually operating out of a 4-3-3 structure much like Gregg Berhalter’s. Also like the USMNT, Japan has a growing number of top talents competing at elite European clubs, including in the UEFA Champions League.
Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu anchors a back line that conceded just four goals in the ten games of their AFC third-round qualifying slate, second-fewest in the region. There’s also a USA connection in Japan’s defense. Goalkeeper Daniel Schmidt, who currently looks to be behind Shuichi Gonda and Eiji Kawashima on the depth chart, is eligible to represent both nations, having been born in Illinois to a Japanese mother and American father.
Creative sparks Takefusa Kubo (Real Sociedad) and Takumi Minamino (Monaco) headline Japan’s attacking options. Perhaps an even more immediate danger in Japanese colors, though, is Kaoru Mitoma. Back in March the 25-year-old winger recorded his first two senior international goals in a key 2-0 qualifying win at Australia that effectively clinched a ticket to Qatar. He’s followed that up with a promising start to his first season in the English Premier League with Brighton & Hove Albion. He and his teammates will be hungry to impress against the US as coach Hajime Moriyasu sorts through his final lineup decisions for the World Cup.
“That’s one of the big things about the World Cup,” USMNT player Weston McKennie said during Thursday’s press conference. “Sometimes you play against teams that you haven’t played against before, that you’ve never experienced playing against. And I think this (match) right here is definitely going to help us, I guess, diversify our play a little bit and adapt to certain situations and certain game plays that we may not be familiar with.”
It’s just the third-ever meeting between these two programs. Japan hosted the Yanks in Tokyo, and won, in the Kirin Cup invitational tournament in 1993 before the USMNT won a 2006 friendly at the home of baseball’s San Francisco Giants. In the bigger picture, several parallels can be drawn between this duo. Both nations embraced the world’s game with increasing success in the 1990s and now seek the tougher task of climbing into the ranks of the global elite.
Japan earned its first-ever trip to the World Cup in 1998 and proceeded to reel off an impressive and ongoing streak of eight straight successful qualification campaigns. They’re now an established heavyweight on their continent and a talent source for Europe’s top leagues. Yet they’ve only reached the tournament’s knockout phase three times and crave a deeper run beyond the round of 16.
This match figures to be a valuable examination for both sides and a key proving ground for every player on the pitch. There’s not much time left until the main event.
More from Charles Boehm:
- With the World Cup looming, the USMNT gathers in Europe for final friendly window
- Orlando City hoists the 2022 US Open Cup in an interesting year for the tournament
- La Liga gets serious about the United States
- Yanks in the 2022-23 UEFA Champions League group stage
Photo by John Dorton – ISIPhotos.com