The US men's national team drew 0-0 with Saudi Arabia in Spain on Tuesday in their final game before their opening World Cup clash against Wales on 21 November. Following on from Friday's tame 2-0 loss to Japan in Germany, these were two tune-ups that served to underline the team's shortcomings rather than solve them, played in low-key atmospheres that felt more like pre-season friendlies than the last international fixtures before a World Cup.
Context is key
It was a series that was more send-to-sleep than send-off, but let's acknowledge the weird circumstances. A game in front of 364 spectators (yes, 364!) on a bad pitch at the home of third-tier Real Murcia is not the sort of occasion that promotes good vibrations.
Contrast with June 2014, when the US were roared off to Brazil with a pair of 2-1 wins: over Turkey in front of a sell-out 26,672 crowd at Red Bull Arena and Nigeria before 52,033 in Jacksonville. The US beat Ghana in their opening group game in Brazil nine days after that victory in Florida. But this group of players are heading back to their clubs, some of them facing another dozen fixtures or so until Qatar 2022 kicks off.
It would have carried an injury risk but US Soccer may have cause to regret not arranging another friendly in November, as a number of nations have done, including Mexico and Canada. On this evidence a final dress rehearsal on the eve of the tournament would have been useful.
If the US don't have pace and intensity, they don't have much
Head coach Gregg Berhalter has discarded some experienced names in order to shape what will be one of the youngest rosters in Qatar. That reflects a conscious break with the past after the failure of Bruce Arena's veterans to reach the 2018 tournament, and also a desire to instill a dynamic pressing style that Berhalter hopes will compensate for a talent deficit relative to the gaudiest World Cup rosters.
But when they're being outmuscled and outhustled, as was the case against Japan and for some of Tuesday's game, they seem to drift, unable to find a quick course correction unless Berhalter shakes things up with substitutions or Christian Pulisic takes charge. That's partly down to a lack of experience, but it also reflects a dependency on midfielder Weston McKennie.
Barrelling into dangerous areas, he was an inspirational link to the forwards when the US were at their best during Concacaf qualifying. However, the Juventus man was poor against Japan and mediocre against Saudi Arabia and as a result the US lacked command in midfield. These slapdash two matches have made it even more obvious that Yunus Musah's tenacity and resilience under pressure are going to be critical against World Cup-calibre nations. The Valencia midfielder was missing from this camp through injury; but his absence only enhanced his reputation.
Striking shortcomings persist
Two shots on target against Saudi Arabia; none against Japan. A team that entered the international window lacking a proven goalscorer ended it none the wiser given the lack of good chances. It means that Jesus Ferreira of FC Dallas remains the favorite to start against Wales, and he did force goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Yami into an admittedly straightforward save soon after coming on for Ricardo Pepi.
With a paltry 13 touches, Pepi didn't get the opportunity to demonstrate that he's rediscovering his scoring touch after a fallow period of almost a year. It's fair to say this fixture wasn't much of a confidence-booster for the teenager.
Also dishearteningly, one of the squad's shiniest creative forces, Gio Reyna, exited after half an hour as a precaution with muscle tightness. The 19-year-old's injury history means he's best treated as a potential impact substitute despite his starting XI-level ability. And Pulisic was muted. Berhalter's side have scored once in six games on foreign soil this year. It's been more than a year since they won on the road and they haven't found the net in six of their 12 games in 2022.
The battle to be number one is done
Japan's dominance gave Matt Turner the chance to showcase his shot-stopping skills and the clean sheet against Saudi Arabia also enhanced the Arsenal back-up's case to start in Qatar. The 28-year-old is surely now the undisputed first choice, with his only serious rival, Zack Steffen, absent from the camp.
Berhalter had been expected to give possible third-choices Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson some action but Turner played every minute of both matches. With the center back slot next to Walker Zimmerman still very much up for grabs, Turner looked reassuringly reliable. The identity of the goalkeeper likely to start against Wales might have been the only issue Berhalter was able to resolve to his satisfaction after a pair of games that proved more confounding than clarifying.
Uncertainty is certain in Qatar
Was this an improved performance compared with the Japan game? Slightly, yes. But Saudi Arabia are a worse team than Japan. And they still carved out better chances than the Americans. For what it's worth, neither opponent has ever gone beyond the round of 16 at a World Cup.
Brow furrowed, weight of the world on his shoulders, Berhalter stalked the touchline like a technical-area Hamlet, dressed all in Nike black, as if attending a memorial service with a sports-casual dress code. But no need to issue the obituary notices just yet for the US's prospects of progressing from Group B, which also comprises England and Iran in addition to Wales.
The performances in the past two games are sure to generate pessimism, but they should also strike a note of realism. So much emotional energy has been invested in returning to the World Cup after eight years, with less consideration of how the team might fare in Qatar.
The US looked what they are: Concacaf's third-best nation, missing half-a-dozen players. Berhalter's team have shown they can raise their game against their greatest rivals, Mexico, so it's perfectly possible that they will be inspired on the greatest stage come November. Or that they'll get some early luck or benefit from a moment of individual greatness that will send their self-belief soaring.
Then again, this is an injury-prone side short of depth - the US struggles if their handful of stars are absent or out of sorts - and they need to get things right from the start, as it's hard to imagine them qualifying from the group if they lose the opening clash with Wales.
Berhalter is certainly executing a masterclass in managing expectations downwards. After admitting to reporters that the team "got our butts kicked" by Japan, he said that "anxiety" and a lack of confidence affected the display against Saudi Arabia. The only ways from here are up … or out.