Left back competition heats up as USMNT pushes toward March qualifiers

Left back competition heats up as USMNT pushes toward March qualifiers

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.

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