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.