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Struggles at left back continue to haunt USMNT


The U.S. Men’s National Team hasn’t been able to solve the left back conundrum for years.

A handful of players have gone through the turnstile since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, but no one has been able to grab hold of the position and call it theirs for an extended period of time, like DeAndre Yedlin has over on the right flank of defense.

USMNT interim manager Dave Sarachan has called upon 21-year-old Antonee Robinson in September and October to attempt to fill the left back vacancy, but the on-loan Wigan Athletic player has experienced a rollercoaster of offensive highs and defensive lows over the last three games.

Against Brazil, Douglas Costa torched Robinson and Colombia exploited the left side of the American defense on countless occasions in Thursday’s 4-2 defeat in Tampa.

“These games are ideal for everyone, but for a guy like Antonee, these are critical in terms of his growth,” Sarachan said. “He’s by no means moving himself into a position where he’s a highly experienced guy, but I really believe he’s intelligent, he’s got qualities where he will learn from all of these games and that’s the investment you make now for the future. So we still believe in him and hopefully he gets more run outs.”

So outside of praying DaMarcus Beasley finds the fountain of youth for 2022 and 2026, the USMNT’s search for a consistent contributor at left back is still stuck in neutral.

Fabian Johnson and Beasley were natural midfielders shoehorned into the position, while Timothy Chandler didn’t stick because of his poor displays on the international stage.

Jorge Villafana appeared to bring some sort of stability to the position, but as one of the veterans in the program, he might not receive many more opportunities, and at 29, it’s hard to believe he’ll be around for Qatar unless he drinks some of Beasley’s anti-aging potion.

So here we are with three games left on the 2018 schedule without a reliable left back to count on once the new manager, presumably Gregg Berhalter, takes over.

At least at other positions like center back, central midfield and wing, there is a foundation laid for the youth to build on once the new manager takes over.

Robinson, Shaq Moore, recent first-time call-up Ben Sweat, Villafana and fellow 29-year-old Eric Lichaj fill out the left back depth chart at the moment.

You could make a temporary fix to the situation by calling Johnson back into the squad, or relying on a versatile center back like Tim Ream to take over in the buildup to the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, but neither are long-term options with an eye on 2022.

So that brings us back to Robinson, who despite his defensive shortcomings has produced a few flashes of brilliance moving forward with an assist in each of his two games.

The potential moving forward and the argument that any American would struggle with Douglas Costa, James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado gives Robinson a small benefit of the doubt, but the overall product still has to be better.

“I think the way that they play, and we watched them quite a lot with Cuadrado and James where they find themselves inside the pocket and ask questions of our wide midfield and in this case our left back Antonee,” Sarachan said. “I think we did not do a good job in terms of passing guys along and staying in what I would say a better zone position so Antonee got pulled in at times which allowed the right back Arias to get forward and I didn’t think the coordination was very good.”

With no clear option at left back and Yedlin versatile enough to play in a more forward role, the possibility of playing three at the back has to be a real option with the current stable of center backs once Berhalter, or whoever the new manager is, takes charge.

Yes, USMNT fans probably have nightmare flashbacks to the last time three at the back was used in a game, but rest assured Jermaine Jones won’t be anchoring the trio. It would be John Brooks, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers competing alongside a young collection of players ready to make the step up from the U-20 level.

But if that system isn’t suitable in Berhalter’s mind, he has to find a left back. So that means either you stick with Robinson and hope he learns from his experiences over the last three games, or choose a new option to fill the wide-open void.

No matter how you approach the situation, left back is the weak link of the squad at the moment, and until the current issues are fixed, opponents will continue to exploit that side of the field and leave the left back exposed and force the center backs out wide to help, which in turn causes more openings throughout the USMNT back four.


  1. The danger of putting a young, inexperienced player up against the likes of Colombia’s front line is that it can destroy confidence and make him a whipping boy for those who want a quick answer to who will be the starting LB in 4 years.

    While a lot of people might not like the path John Nelson took to attend UNC instead of pursuing professional soccer directly out of HS. Still as a now college sophomore, he continues to play every minute for UNC who are ranked sometimes #1 other time somewhere in the top 10. He also did something that would have happened in any case, he is getting physically more mature. Even on the youth national teams, he looked like the baby on them. He always seemed to me to be the kind of player who can read the game very well and very seldom gets caught out of position to defend. I am pretty sure he has only gained in confidence while starting every game for the TarHeels.

    There are other 20 year-olds who are just getting going, who did not mature early, did not look like a man among boys, and had to play with skill and intelligence to compete against more mature players.

    I think we have not seen the last of Nelson (and others) on the various USMN teams.

  2. Outright speed, while fashionable at the moment, in becoming seriously overrated when evaluating fullbacks. Too many people worried about finding the next Kyle Walker. When what we really need is the next Steve Cherundolo. Give me a lockdown defender with flawless positional sensibility and excellent decision-making. If he can get forward opportunistically and play a decent cross like Stevie, so much the better.

  3. The kid is still learning, give him a break going against championship level players then against Colombia international’s like James he might take a few bad beats but he is the best in the U.S. Pool

  4. Let’s just lineup 5 defenders with 2 left fullbacks to double team at all times….The position has been in a constant state of question forever, but wow, it looked non-existent last night. I know Robinson is young, and was playing against some of the world’s best, but he was way out of position.

    • MLS is actually doing a really good job of that now. Look at the youth that are coming up (the next wave, that is): Busio, Bello, Carleton, Lindsey, etc. Even most of the kids going to Europe have come from MLS academies: Soto, Reyna, Richards, etc. The movement that we are seeing with Pulisic, McKennie, Sargent, Weah, Adams, etc. is just getting started.

      • You’re naming only a couple of kids out of a total of 20 US MLS teams, Not a good ratio of success. MLS is failing the youth. Don’t be surprised if we don’t qualify for 2022.

      • If we don’t qualify for 2022, I will be beyond surprised. Are you saying that a core of Pulisic, McKennie, Sargent, Adams, Brooks, Miazga, and Steffen aren’t capable of getting through CONCACAF? Also, the youth movement just started within the past few years.
        You are correct in saying that not many MLS teams are doing it right at the moment, but considering the amount of time that it has been a focus, we have made tremendous strides, and there is clear progress being made now that it has been made a priority. Developing players takes a long time, and the significance of fact that we are starting to see a number of teenagers who are pros cannot be understated.
        There are a lot of names that I left off (hence the “etc.”): Fuentes, Scally, Pomykal, Cannon, Ocampo, Ferreira, Kuzain, Bassett, etc., etc. etc. Again, this does not even touch on the players who were developed by MLS academies who have gone abroad: guys like Booth, Mendez, Llanez, etc., etc., etc. in addition to the ones listed above.

      • That is 18 names of 16-18 year olds that are pros developed by MLS and that is just off the top of my head. This progress is light years ahead of where we were just a few years ago. And, as I not so eloquently stated above, this is only the beginning, and we are operating nowhere near 100% efficiency. There is much more to come….

      • So MLS is not letting us down; it is the entity that is most responsible for blazing this new trail that has to be done if we expect to actually get anywhere.

  5. The truth here is we have no idea. Until we get a new coach/system in place there is not much to see here. What I think we can all agree on is the position is up for grabs. Its easy to see how we could turn to a 3 in the back system which changes this debate completely.
    All these friendlies have shown us is a few individuals look ready to contribute in some way (Mckennie, Adams, Weah, Green?) others the jury is still out (Novakovich, Robinson, Miazga etc)

    • Stop it…positioning is positioning and Antonee was out of it quite a bit last night, so it really has nothing to do with who the coach is. He’s young and inexperienced, we all know it, but in order for players to get better they need to go through the ups and downs of the position, but what we can’t do is make excuses for the players we like and diminish the ones we don’t

      • @ronniet
        Not making excuses at all. Just think we saw a bad game from a young player. He hasn’t really taken a step backward bc we have no idea what or who the new coach will want from the left side of the field(except he definitely will want better than what we saw vs Colombia)
        Jury for sure out on Miazga. I don’t think he has looked like a surefire starter by any means. We have a decent depth of young CBs and the partnership at that position is so important. Miazga could easily find himself on the bench if he and Brooks don’t gel

  6. my two cents: historically, left back has always been our weak link. we often would do as sarachan has done here and ask a midfielder or a forward to play left back. so what happens is our left backs, traditionally, while not the best at defending, EXCEL IN ATTACK and you had this (i thought) kind of interesting situation where if we had the ball on our left side our left back [who isn’t actually a fullback 😉 ] has SPEED TO BURN and when we have the call can HAUL ASS down that left touchline like a track star. it was at once kind of our weakness and our strength. over time, as a fan, i grew to like it and expect it. for me, it has become part of our usa team’s CHARM.

    • my two cents: if we’re going to put a speedy mf or fwd at left back, tell him when we have the ball to START THE ATTACK and OVERLAP THE LM and RUN FOR THE CORNER FLAG and TRY TO WHIP IN CROSSES. tell the other three full backs to SHIFT LEFT when he makes his attacking run and KEEP BALANCE defensively in front of our goal.

      • “make lemons out of lemonade” as they say. turn our disadvantage into an advantage.

      • I think Zardes could fulfill that role. He has the speed, the motor, and he works hard on defense. I think that is why Klinsmann liked to play him on the wing.

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