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U.S. Men's National Team

Left back competition heats up as USMNT pushes toward March qualifiers

Jorge Villafana Santos Laguna 33
For years, the January camp has been used to identify new U.S. Men’s National Team talent, and players like Jozy Altidore and Geoff Cameron have utilized the annual gathering to begin what eventually became extended international careers. What it generally hasn’t always done, though, is challenge the status quo, at least in the short-term.

That isn’t expected to change this time around. Bruce Arena himself came out and said he doesn’t expect any radical changes ahead of March’s qualifiers. To do so would be detrimental to the group, one which is up against it when it comes to World Cup qualifying.

Still, there is one position that appear up for grabs, and it’s a position that has long proven, and continues to prove, a weakness for the USMNT: left back, and the race certainly got a bit more interesting on Wednesday afternoon.

Jorge Villafana announced on Wednesday that he was set to join the USMNT’s ongoing January camp, adding yet another variable to a volatile position. The two incumbent fullback starters, DeAndre Yedlin and Fabian Johnson, remain with their club teams, giving several new and familiar faces a chance to push into Arena’s plans.

As things stand, several of the positions throughout the USMNT squad are all but locked up. Michael Bradley will start in the midfield. When healthy, Cameron and John Brooks will almost certainly start in the center of defense. Some combination of Jordan Morris, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood will certainly start up top. The team’s four best goalkeepers, meanwhile, aren’t even in camp.

Fullback is a whole other animal. Yedlin is currently shining with Newcastle on the club level, a good omen for his USMNT future, but he has yet to truly put it together defensively on the international level. He drew Jurgen Klinsmann’s ire during the end of his USMNT tenure and, while Arena brings a fresh perspective, it’s up to him to replicate club form on the international stage. Keegan Rosenberry has the tools to make a run for the position, but Yedlin is the likely starter in March.

Johnson, meanwhile, remains best as a left midfielder, and Arena will likely do his best to find a way to play him there whenever possible, leaving a gap at left back.

He has options for that left back spot. Villafana is perhaps the most interesting face, especially since he’s so new. Many remember his standout performance at the 2015 MLS Cup, one which saw him completely shut down Ethan Finlay en route to a title with the Portland Timbers. His ensuing move to Santos Laguna hasn’t been ideal but Villafana is certainly a player in this new race. He’s skilled defensively and has played well on the biggest stage, making him an intriguing option going forward.

Joining him is another player who recently plied his trade in Mexico, Greg Garza, who looked to be the team’s go-to left back before injuries derailed his career on both the club and international level. Since returning, he struggled to break back into the Tijuana lineup, prompting a move to Atlanta United ahead of the 2017 season.

While Garza will never be the fleetest of foot, he does bring defensive chops much like Villafana. He’s generally a reliable presence, but his lack of speed is concerning against top international teams. Still, the team does have a need for a more defensive-minded fullback to stay home while Yedlin creates havoc on the other side. Garza, like Villafana, could be that guy if he returns to pre-injury form.

If the two fail to step up, Arena does have a natural safety blanket in DaMarcus Beasley, who is in no way a long-term solution. Beasley can certainly get the U.S. through the March qualifiers if Arena cannot find a true solution, but it would certainly be a less-than-inspiring choice if Arena doesn’t feel anyone is ready to knock the 34-year-old, who was recently retired from the international game, out of the starting lineup.

Finally, there’s the wild card: Taylor Kemp. The 26-year-old  fullback is a new face to USMNT camp, but was Mr. Reliable for D.C. United last season, playing 35 times. Kemp has shown an ability to make the spectacular play on the club level, but there are obvious questions to how he will translate to the international game. Kemp’s the least likely to seize a role any time soon, but a spectacular January effort could see him push for consideration down the line.

Arena certainly has options. He could just settle on Johnson as left back, especially with Gyasi Zardes back in the fold as a left midfield option. He could go with Beasley’s veteran hand, especially in March’s must-win qualifiers.

Or, as he likely hopes, one of Villafana, Garza or Kemp steps up and claims a spot that has long proven troublesome for a team in need.

10 comments
  • Luke

    As much as I’ve been dying to see Villafana in camp, and I am excited to see what he can do in these upcoming friendlies, I wouldn’t oppose to using Beasley in the qualifiers. If we had our full squad, and any of these newcomers could build chemistry during this camp with the regulars, I’d be all for trotting out a new LB. But in a must win game with little to no experience playing with FJ on the left, I don’t know that I would trust the chemistry in such a big game.

    My big hope is that Bruce will call in Lichaj when he is not in season with Nottingham and we can finally see him get a full run with the USMNT. Personally I think that he is our best option at LB, but I don’t know how many would agree with that based on how little exposure they have to him at the NT level.

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    • jb

      Yeah I agree there isn’t enough time to integrate a new left-back for a must-win qualifier in March. I think it has to be Fabian in the March qualifiers, assuming he’s recovered and fit from injury. If not, then I would think it’s Beasley if he is fit. I’m sure Bruce is trying to fast-track the other options, but March is right around the corner. As for Lichaj, my last memory is him coming into a really tough match against Mexico for an injured Cherundolo, and being part of a defense completely overrun to tune of 3-4 goals. Not sure that’s entirely fair to Lichaj, but unless he’s improved dramatically I don’t think he’s going to be a real upgrade over the other options.

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      • Kung Fu Kangaroos

        I believe you are thinking of Bornstein. Once he entered that Gold Cup final due to Dolo’s injury, Mexico went right at him and proceeded to score goals and win.

        I too would like to see Lichaj given a chance … especially in the summer for the GC.

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      • Lost in Space

        Lichaj started that GC game on the left with Dolo on the right. Once Steve got injured BB brought on Bornstein as the LB and shifted Lichaj to RB….when the better option would have been to bring Spector on as the Dolo replacement at RB, and leave Eric at LB.

        Changing 1 player/position is preferable to making a double change. That was one of the keys for why BB was let go.

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  • Twomilerule

    FabJohnson is the most complete LB in the player pool. No doubt! All other candidates pale in comparisons but I don’t think he wants to play LB. Unless he is paired with a left wing who can interchange and allows him to overlap going forward. If he is forced to defend and chase the ball for a full 90 his talents will be waisted and he loses interest.
    I like Villafana and want him to succeed but has limited physical attributes. Small, slight, and is not that fast but plays with a lot of heart and toughness. However, he was regularly a weak link on set pieces for the Timbers because of his lack of height and strength. Villafana never backed down from physical play although he regularly took beat downs defending. On the positives besides playing hard tough futbol he has good vision, good with the ball, can play combo passes in tight space, competent with crosses, has good positioning on defense, will interchange well going forward, team first guy, and aware enough to play a high line for offsides trap.

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  • Gary Page

    I disagree with the major premise of this article–that Fabian is best used in the midfield. The reason I don’t agree is that our need is much greater at left back than in the midfield. In the midfield, at least for this year, we have Pulisic, Zardes, Bedoya, Bradley, Jones, Kitchen. maybe Feilhaber, Nagbe, Lletget, or Zusi. Cameron can also play defensive mid in a pinch (with Birnbaum filling in for him at center back). At left back we have Fabian, a too old Beasley, and some possibilities. If you want to put out the best XI, you go with Fabian at left back instead of someone who has never played internationally (a couple of games at the youth level don’t really count), like Villafana, or Garza, who is too slow. Also, regards Garza, Ream may be better than Garza at defense. With Dempsey possibly in the picture, we then have another player who can play up top or as an attacking mid. That gives us a total of about a dozen or more good players in the midfield and attack when we have room for only 6 (7 if you go to 3 in the back, which Arena has never done).

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  • UclaBruinGreat

    Not related to this article but I thought this was an interesting take regarding college soccer vs going pro.

    “When you look around South America, Europe, the big nations are training their younger players day in and day out, getting opportunities to play with men in competitive games,” said New York City FC sporting director Claudio Reyna. “A lot of effort has been made with the USL — it’s in the second tier now — and to get players in environments where there’s more pressure. But for me, that’s my main theory on it. Our players are in too much of an environment where they’re not under pressure.”

    “A 19-year-old player in Monaco is already cared for and catered to as a professional,” added former New York Red Bulls and AS Monaco executive Jerome de Bontin. “We always looked at them as important investments. A 19-year-old in MLS is asked to show up for practice and then ignored the rest of the week. He’s not nurtured half as much as at UCLA or New Mexico or Indiana. We’ve not reached a stage yet where we have a professional environment that really caters to players in that age group, 19-21, who aspire to becoming professional. I still believe the vast majority of them are much better off going to those top-20 programs in college than going into these semipro environments that MLS or USL provide.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gary Page

      The main problem with college soccer is the restrictions the NCAA puts on how much time a player can play and practice. With more and more MLS teams having youth teams in the USL where they are devoting their lives to soccer, I think a young player is better off there than in college. If the NCAA would loosen up, it would be much better for their college players who want to turn pro. But, the NCAA has as much focus on those players who will never play pro as those who will. And the vast majority of college players, whatever the sport, will never play professionally. Whereas in even the soccer minor leagues they are professionals and only have to concentrate on soccer, not homework or classes and they have no restrictions on how often or long they play.

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      • JC

        All sounds good in theory, except most of these kids will never make it in soccer and are not compensated well. It’s best for the USMNT if they are all in a pro environment, but if you are talking the top 100 kids, maybe 5 of them play with the USMNT some day. It’s best for the other 95 to have a college education. You can still get three months in a pro environment in the summer.

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