Every good team begins with its spine, and U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann will have some decisions to make in constructing his after years of tinkering.
With the announcement of the USMNT’s 40-man shortlist ahead of this summer’s Copa America, Klinsmann has left himself with a variety of options for building his central defense. In total, the door has left been open for 10 players that have the ability to play the centerback position. Generally, one would assume a roster of 23 would feature four central defenders, and Klinsmann will be tasked with eliminating several who have featured prominently over the past several seasons.
In many ways, the current centerback competition is both a compliment and an indictment of the current state of the U.S. backline. On one hand, Klinsmann has been left with a variety of options, each with a separate claim to a spot on the team. Previously a spot of weakness, Klinsmann has talented players at his disposal that should be capable of putting it together on the international level.
On the other hand, no defender has stepped up to rightfully assume that top spot. When looking at many of the world’s top sides, team leadership, mentality and culture radiate from true generals in the centerback position. The U.S. has no Thiago Silva, Jerome Boateng or Diego Godin, players that have emerged as elite leaders on their respective backline. It’s not even necessarily the talent that harms the U.S., but rather the lack of claim to a true leadership role as a general of the backline. There are no Carlos Bocanegras, Marcelo Balboas or Eddie Popes to assume a leadership role, a worrying fact for a team still looking for an identity on the backline.
Assuming Klinsmann selects four central defenders, the first name that is all but guaranteed is Geoff Cameron. With the versatility to play in midfield or on the right as well, Cameron has proven to be the USMNT’s most consistent defender throughout the past several months. With DeAndre Yedlin on the right and some combination of Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman in front of him, Cameron should naturally join the starting XI from the get-go in the familiar centerback position.
Joining Cameron as virtual locks are John Brooks and Matt Besler, two players who will compete for the left centerback position. When healthy, the two have proven capable defenders since the World Cup, even with Brooks’ difficulties last summer at the Gold Cup. The Hertha Berlin defender has since become an integral part of a challenge for a Champions League berth, while Besler has since recovered from a concussion that knocked him out of World Cup qualifying.
That leaves one spot, or maybe two depending on fullbacks, for an additional centerback. Klinsmann can opt to bring in a younger option like Matt Miazga, Ventura Alvarado or Steve Birnbaum, and each boasts their own positives and negatives.
In Miazga, Klinsmann has a legitimate prospect making his way at Chelsea, even if he has fallen upon hard times after a solid Premier League debut. Alvarado has recently rejoined Club America’s lineup, but has been largely inactive since a putrid Gold Cup showing.
Finally, Birnbaum looked spectacular at USMNT January camp and has the ability to play right back, but the D.C. United defender has made only four international appearances on any level since 2008. Boosting Birnhaum’s case is his chemistry with Cameron, which was apparent in the USMNT’s defeat of Guatemala.
Instead, Klinsmann can opt to go with a more veteran presence, Like Birnbaum, Tim Ream, Brad Evans and Michael Orozco offer depth out wide, and Klinsmann may view them more as fullback options than centerback competitors. However, it would make little sense to bring the trio as pure centerbacks unless Klinsmann is looking to consolidate a roster spot by combining a central and wide option.
That leaves Omar Gonzalez, a player that has been out of the USMNT picture for a bit of time. The 2014 World Cup veteran has shined since joining Pachuca, even if he has seemingly fallen to the back of the line in terms of recent call-ups.
With so many potential choices, Klinsmann will have to prioritize. Is it worth it to use a fourth centerback spot on someone like Mizaga or Alvarado, players who may not be ready but could use the experience of a Copa America? Does the USMNT prepare for the worst by bringing in an experienced defender like Gonzalez who could step in should anything happen to the other defenders on the roster? Or does Klinsmann go somewhere in the middle, opting for someone like Birnbaum, who brings versatility to play out wide and a natural ceiling that has yet to be reached?
Whatever decision Klinsmann makes, it will be an important one. The USMNT head coach has developed a reputation for surprises, and it’s hard to nail down exactly what Klinsmann will want to prioritize with a World Cup just two years away.
Following a disastrous defensive performance in the Gold Cup, Klinsmann will have to choose correctly. Each player proves vital in a situation as volatile as tournament play, especially against some of the world’s top teams. With so many ways to construct his roster, Klinsmann’s toughest decision lies with the centerback position, and it is that decision that may prove most vital against the titans of South American soccer.