A solid step up
The 3-2 U.S. triumph over a talented Japan squad revealed more about the World Cup potential of both individual players and the complete team than the tepid scoreless tie against Canada or the runaway 5-0 victory over a young Norway squad.
That's partly because Japan was an opponent with something at stake in the match as well. Canada featured a team that was virtually pressure-free -- and they turned in an inspired performance against their rusty and jittery continental neighbors. Norway, meanwhile, decided to give a number of their young players a chance versus the United States -- and the untried players proved incapable of mounting a serious challenge or comeback against the U.S. steamroll.
"At times, playing against a harder opponent, that's a good assessment. But we took things away from the Canada game and we took other things away from the Norway game. We felt that Norway wasn't a lesser opponent than Canada -- it was more the fact that we had the right approach to the game, our legs were a little bit back and we played an outstanding game."
Unlike the other two squads the U.S. faced, Japan is going to the World Cup this year. Like most of their U.S. counterparts, who play in Major League Soccer, Japan's lineup consisted of their domestic players. Those present were the pick of the J-league, and eager to stake their claim to a World Cup spot.
Even as the Americans dominated the play for most of the game on Friday, the Japanese players exhibited their improving technical skill and creativity with tricky moves such as backheel passes, quick flicks and misdirection feints with the ball. Too often, however, a slick play not only fooled a defender, but also a teammate, leaving the ball to roll out of bounds.
Japan's coach, the iconic Zico, had better results when he switched the players to a more attacking format in the second half.
"They're a very technical team," noted Onalfo after the game. "They have a coach that's Brazilian, who likes to play with style, and that's what they ended up doing."
Onalfo didn't believe that Zico had molded the Japanese into an imitation of Brazil's team.
"I don't so much think that he tries to mimic Brazil, because really, the makeup of a Japanese player is much different than a Brazilian player. They're smaller. They're not built the same way, but certainly, he's developed a style that suits their team."
It wasn't as if the Americans were lacking in flair themselves, but they were more successful in combining the artistry with effectiveness. Clint Dempsey showed off several cutbacks and dribble jukes that led to advantages for the young midfielder to push the ball past the defense. The frustrated Japanese fouled him often.
"I thought we did a good job getting at them early and putting that pressure on them," said Dempsey. "At first the game seemed like it was even -- then it started to sway a little bit in our favor. I tried to play to that and keep the intensity up and I thought that helped us out."
Japan started the game well in the first few minutes, creating a dangerous chance and making the U.S. defense look a bit shaky, but the Americans were soon in sync and keeping the ball in the Japanese half. They circled Yoshikatsu Kawaguchi's goal, probing for opportunities. Not surprisingly, forward Taylor Twellman was in the mix of most.
What was more eye-opening was how he used his grit, vision and heading skill to knock down a long pass from defender Todd Dunivant. The ball took a slight deflection off a Japanese defender, but still continued to its target, centerback Eddie Pope, who nailed the shot into the net.
The next goal was an even better example of the U.S. team's ability to maximize their skills through good teamwork. Again wrecking havoc near the Japanese box, Dempsey flicked a pass to forward Josh Wolff, who fooled the Japanese defense by one-touching a pass to Twellman, who redirected the ball to Dempsey. The finish into the goal was the simplest move of the entire sequence.
Apart from the goals, the U.S. midfielders were dominating the run of play, linking up well with the forwards. It may not be a coincidence that both Dempsey and Twellman have had some of their best games while on the field with each other and Pat Noonan, another New England Revolution teammate. Noonan was active in pushing the ball forward on several occasions.
"It's always good to have Revolution players alongside," said Dempsey. "You have that chemistry and you kind of know what they're going to do. Against Norway, I was able to assist on Taylor's goal and then my goal tonight, he was able to assist on mine. Noonan also got an assist to Taylor in the Norway game."
All the MLS players are familiar with each other to a certain degree, but the connection between regular squad players is even stronger.
"It just shows you that team chemistry always helps," maintained Dempsey. "It gives you an advantage, because you know what your teammates going to do before the opponent does, because you've seen them do it day in and day out."
The tactics of the Americans paid off in final U.S. goal. The team had patiently earned several corners. The height advantage over the Japanese players wasn't huge, but it was a factor to be exploited. Twellman provided the last touch on a powerful header from a Landon Donovan kick.
Smart play, teamwork and hustle were the obvious attributes the U.S. put on full display. Yet given enough time, Japan proved itself a worthy squad to expose weaknesses as well.
"It was a very tough test," Pope said. "Near the end they started throwing players forward. It was difficult. I felt like we should have definitely kept our composure, and not bunker in and just take wave after wave after wave. We have to do a better job at the end of the game."
"We made some changes here and there, kind of lost the flow," admitted Dempsey. "They were able to fight back. They never gave up. I thought Japan was a good team. If you give them time on the ball, they can hurt you. They did, when we gave them time."
Clearly more comfortable in an attacking formation, Japan gained some momentum with the inclusion of subs eager to show their worth to Zico.
"The players that they put into the game brought more energy onto their team," observed Onalfo. "Then we made some changes as well, and it just broke the rhythm of the game."
"They're putting in fresh legs and subs and things like that and you definitely get tired towards the end. It's the beginning of the year, so there's the fitness issue."
He took a lesson from the two goals the team gave up.
"Some of the leaders -- we should have stepped up, really calmed things down, slowed the game down a little bit more, had guys hold on to the ball more. We didn't do a great job at that. That was the worst part."
Despite allowing a feisty Japanese team to make the scoreline more respectable, the U.S. team had reason to be pleased with the game as a whole.
Onalfo was content.
"The team played very, very well, for the first 70 minutes, probably some of the best soccer we've played all year."
As the U.S. continues on the path to Germany and the World Cup, performances such as this one are crucial to the morale of players, who improve when their comfort level is high. Knowing that they have done well fosters their trust in themselves, their team and their coaches.
"You feel you have more of the coach's confidence," Dempsey explained. "He's putting you into more games and letting you play more minutes. If you have that opportunity, it can only help your confidence and help your play improve."
The perhaps-future World Cup rookie wasn't alone in that opinion.
"The good part is that we did win," said Pope. "We did come out of there with some confidence."
Dempsey summed up the entire experience.
"It was a really good game. Japan is ranked 15th. They didn't bring all their best players and we didn't have all our best players, but I think it shows where we are as a nation in soccer. We're in good hands."
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org