One of the biggest U.S. Men’s National Team position battles heading into 2021 is at centerback, where John Brooks is the clear-cut choice as the left centerback, but it is much less clear who will be his partner when World Cup qualifying begins next summer.
The November friendlies gave Matt Miazga a chance to state his case for the role, while young Bayern Munich prospect Chris Richards took his first step toward entering the discussion.
The December training camp should off an even better status report for that competition, with three top MLS standouts, including Berhalter’s most recent first-choice option as Brooks’ main partner, Aaron Long, back in the picture.
Walker Zimmerman is coming off a career year, as MLS Defender of the Year, while Mark McKenzie enjoyed a breakout 2020 as an MLS Best XI-caliber centerback on the Supporters’ Shield-winning Philadelphia Union, pushing his name into the conversation of potential partners for Brooks.
“I think the centerback position is pretty open,” Berhalter said on Tuesday. “So for us it’s really looking to see who takes advantage of this opportunity. Who can have a good performance in this camp, and really try to stake the claim to be the starter on the team.
“We certainly have the talent in this pool to show that.”
Long didn’t enjoy as consistent a 2020 season as Zimmerman and McKenzie, but he remains a leading candidate to reprise his role as Brooks’ preferred centerback partner. The pairing performed well in 2019, both in the Gold Cup and Nations League.
Here is a look at how the competition stacks up at the right centerback position:
Though he has struggled to regain his MLS Defender of the Year level in recent years, he remains a top-level defender who is as good as anyone on this list when he is in form. His defending is stronger than his passing, so he will need to continue working on his passing to fend off challenges from the better passers on this list.
Getting two starts in the November friendlies was a big step for Miazga as he looks to grab hold of the first-choice role. His passing is ahead of Long’s and Zimmerman’s, but his defending needs to be more consistent for him to take over the starting role.
Coming off a career year, Zimmerman showed improvements in his defensive game, though Nashville SC’s style of play suited his strengths perfectly. What the move from LAFC to Nashville didn’t do was help his passing, with his new team providing him with less opportunities to sharpen his distribution.
A sharp passer and strong defender, McKenzie has the profile to climb to the top of this list, and a move to Europe could help him take his game to another level after reaching the MLS Best XI level this season. He has the strength, passing touch and poise to be a national team starter eventually, and should be a key factor in Olympic qualifying if he is unable to break through into the USMNT lineup in 2021.
It isn’t a matter of if, but when Richards will break into the picture as a starting option. He is finding his footing at Bayern, earning opportunities with the European champions, even if they have come at fullback. Richards is an excellent passer and has the defensive qualities to be an elite-level defender. Will his development continue in time to get him into the starting lineup by next summer? It is entirely possible, especially he starts earning some centerback minutes for Bayern.
A bit of a forgotten option after Atlanta United’s terrible 2020 season, Robinson saw his game take a step back, but he remains a strong prospect who should be a factor for the Olympic qualifying setup. His dominant aerial game and underrated passing skills remain strengths, though his decision-making was a bit shaky in 2020, and is something he will need to improve to work his way back up this list.
Another player who has seen his position fade among the list of promising centerback prospects, Carter-Vickers has fallen off the radar to his current loan at Bournemouth, which has yet to produce playing time. He recently suffered an ankle injury that has slowed his efforts even further. Despite all that, Carter-Vickers is still a prospect to keep in mind because he is still just 22 and has close to 100 League Championship appearances under his belt.
The Chicago Fire rookie has the passing touch of a midfielder, but the defensive qualities to be a strong centerback option. He turned 23 in October and is therefore eligible for the Olympic qualifying setup, which is part of the reason he earned the December call. His skill set fits well with what Berhalter likes in his centerbacks, so if Pineda can show improvement in 2021 he could play himself into the picture as a potential Gold Cup option.
Another player who had to suffer through his team’s disappointing season, Glad didn’t get the call for the December camp, but he had a solid 2020 campaign for Real Salt Lake and most recently took part in last January’s USMNT camp, so Berhalter has seen him. Glad’s technical quality makes him an enticing option, but he is facing a growing list of competition at this position.