WASHINGTON -- Pre-tournament friendlies occupy an odd space in the international game. On the one hand they are a time for experimentation. On the other, managers don't want to do too much to tip their tactical plan. Injury avoidance is paramount.
Such matches can also set off alarms of varying decibel levels. It was around this time a year ago that the U.S. ground out a 1-1 draw with France. There was some predictable criticism of the French team, but it was also all forgotten a month later when Les Bleus went on to hoist the World Cup trophy.
The U.S. engaged in such a contest Wednesday night in a friendly against Jamaica, and suffice it to say, there is plenty to worry about in the aftermath of its 1-0 defeat to the Reggae Boyz at Audi Field. But at the same time, it's not time to hit the panic button.
If one so chooses, the U.S. can throw out any number of caveats. At best, the Americans trotted out five first-choice players. Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams have yet to join up with the team. Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and Weston McKennie didn't even dress. Most of the U.S. players had been in a camp only a few days.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter also opted for a new formation, one he described as a 3-4-2-1 with Cristian Roldan and Djordje Mihailovic acting as attacking midfielders in support of lone striker Joshua Sargent.
Yet what transpired wasn't so much about formation, or even available personnel. It was simply an unequivocally poor performance. Not a single U.S. starter really helped themselves in terms of earning starting spots when the Gold Cup begins with a June 18 match. Duane Holmes provided a spark off the bench, but that was pretty much it.
To be clear, Jamaica was well worth its victory. It created the better chances, and a second goal didn't look out of the realm.
As for the U.S., it had some success in the first 20 minutes when the home side was able to get behind the Jamaica defense. But thereafter the U.S. looked timid, especially in the final third, its tempo slow. The Reggae Boyz sensed this. It allowed them to engage in more duels, and Jamaica became more and more adventurous, especially with its press to start the second half. The result was more forced turnovers in the home side's defensive third, which is where Shamar Nicholson's 60th-minute winner came from.
"Overall, we started to lose a little bit of structure and continuity as the game went on and where we were connecting," U.S. midfielder Wil Trapp said. "And then in the final third, we were just a little anemic at times with the speed of play and the quality of the chances we were creating."
In his postgame news conference, Berhalter surmised that with the U.S. set to announce its final 23-man Gold Cup roster Thursday morning, the occasion got to some of his players.
"The roster was pretty much intact from our point of view. But again, when there's a deadline, when you're naming a roster, it weighs on people. I think we saw some of that," Berhalter said. "I don't think any of those guys will make excuses. I'm not going to make excuses. We know we need to improve. We know we need to get better. We know we need to be, I think, more aggressive in the final third. We had one shot on goal today. That's pretty poor, and we know that."
If that is all it takes for the U.S. to get thrown off its collective game, then it has big problems. Granted, a different kind of pressure will be present when the Gold Cup starts, but this was a moment the U.S. should have been able to manage, and it didn't.
Now, to be clear, many of the players afterward didn't echo Berhalter's sentiments.
"It wasn't something we were overly focused on," Trapp said about the announcement of the roster.
So really what it comes down to is execution, and once again the U.S. was found lacking in terms of its ability to take care of the ball. That isn't something that is going to be fixed overnight, or even with this group of players.
The U.S. should still cruise through the Gold Cup group stage. But Jamaica's approach will no doubt be observed by the Americans' knockout stage opponents. Granted, the presence of Pulisic and others will make teams a bit more wary, but a seed has no doubt been planted.
Does this result take on outsized importance? Berhalter seemed to think so.
"I'm not sure it should be that volatile that you turn against a team after one poor performance," he said. "There's going to be more, especially as time goes on, there will be more poor performances when I'm coach. I guarantee it."
But while it might be one bad performance for Berhalter, the U.S. fan base remains scarred from the World Cup qualifying failure. That's not on Berhalter, but it explains why the emotions surrounding the U.S. program remain all over the place, and why this Gold Cup is more important for the Americans than previous editions.
The best part of Wednesday's defeat is that there is another game to play Sunday against Venezuela in Cincinnati, though just how much of the first XI that will play is unclear. Pulisic will have only been with the team a few days, so he could be rested like McKennie & Co. were against Jamaica. But at the least it should contain some more familiar faces. And for those holdovers, there will be plenty of motivation.
"I think everybody can be better in that way, be smarter, be more secure in their passes," Roldan said. "But in the end, it's on us. You take it to the face and try to be better the next game."
They'll have their chance in four days time.