For the better part of past two years, Geoff Cameron has been one of the most consistent members of the U.S. Men’s National Team squad. However, now, with two of the most vital games on the qualifying schedule looming, the U.S. will be without the Stoke City defender, creating several issues along the backline.
Stoke City manager Mark Hughes said Friday that Geoff Cameron’s recent knee ailments will almost certainly keep him out of action for the USMNT’s clashes with Mexico and Costa Rica. The injury robs the U.S. of it’s most ever-present defender, one that has started all 10 of the USMNT’s competitive matches in 2016. Cameron’s absence is a notable loss, one that deprives the U.S. of a player that has formed a very good partnership with John Brooks throughout the past year or so.
The good news? Brooks is healthy and ready to go. The Hertha Berlin defender has been a bit up and down since the Copa America, but finally appears healthy enough to start both qualifiers. A healthy, in-form Brooks will be a vital piece of the USMNT backline, but Jurgen Klinsmann still needs to shuffle several puzzle pieces around him.
Omar Gonzalez and Steve Birnbaum appear the most likely to take Cameron’s place in the starting XI. Birnbaum previously partnered Brooks in the USMNT’s pre-Copa America win over Ecuador, an impressive 1-0 shutout of a South American contender. Gonzalez, meanwhile, joined Brooks three times in 2015 and is now firmly back in the picture after rejoining the U.S. following this summer’s tournament.
Each provides their own pros and cons. Birnbaum is the younger option, one that could benefit plenty from being thrown into the fire against Mexico. Young players learn by doing and Birnbaum has more than earned his chance to sink or swim against El Tri. Birnbaum looked more than capable against the Trinidad & Tobagos and the Guatemalas of the world and should now be tasked with taking the next step. Is it risky? Sure, especially with Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez starting on the other side. However, Birnbaum has shown capable to date and a match against Mexico could go a long way towards understanding where exactly he falls in the USMNT hierarchy.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, is the veteran. He’s been in these battles before, especially against Mexico. Gonzalez was a vital part of the last Dos a Cero in Columbus back in 2013, as well as the historic draw earlier that year. Gonzalez has the benefit experience, especially in big games with the national team. He also has the benefit of familiarity, as the Pachuca centerback has faced many of Mexico’s players in Liga MX play since departing the LA Galaxy.
The argument isn’t necessarily as simple as short vs. long-term. Yes, Birnbaum is the better bet for the 2018 World Cup, but that doesn’t mean that Klinsmann doesn’t see him as a better player in 2016. The question comes down to fit and confidence, while Birnbaum’s recent two-week break following postseason play could be a slight detriment.
Cameron’s absence causes a battle in the center, but it also helps end one on the right. Klinsmann was vocally disappointed with DeAndre Yedlin following the most recent set of friendlies, leading many to believe that Cameron could be shifted to fullback anyway. The U.S. does have plenty of depth at centerback, after all, and fullback remains the weakest position in the USMNt pool.
However, it appears Yedlin should be set to start against Mexico, barring a decision to award Timmy Chandler a surprising role following several standout club efforts. To Yedlin’s credit, the former Seattle Sounders fullback has shined in recent weeks with Newcastle after gaining a starting role with the Championship club. Yedlin is in much better form than he was a month ago, a positive sign heading into the Hex.
Overall, the absence of Cameron is less-than-ideal. It deprives the U.S. of one of the first names on the team sheet, a leader in the back and a bonafide international defender. However, it appears the USMNT is somewhat equipped for the loss heading into two of the biggest games on the road to Russia.