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Centerback competition takes center stage in December USMNT camp

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:

Aaron Long

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.

Matt Miazga

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.

Walker Zimmerman

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.

Mark McKenzie

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.

Chris Richards

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.

Miles Robinson

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.

CAMERON CARTER-VICKERS

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.

Mauricio Pineda

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.

JUSTEN GLAD

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.

Comments

  1. Always like your insights, Ives. I agree with your analysis. On a positive note, there suddenly appears to be a few good options at CB that didn’t exist earlier in 2020. We won’t play a meaningful game until well into 2021.
    – Zimmerman is at a disadvantage in Berhalter’s style of play if passing is his biggest weakness. Playing for Nashville didn’t help his progress in that area. It may be now or never to cross the pond.
    – It will be interesting to see if Miazga’s tactical awareness improves under Kompany’s coaching. He is the right coach for him at this juncture. The jury awaits until late spring to gauge progress.
    – Here is hoping McKenzie has a good agent to direct into the best situation come January. Hoping a Bundesliga club takes a chance. He is ready for the challenge and to move up the depth chart.
    – Richards just needs time to grow and develop, and earn consistent playing time. He’s an easy pick for 5he summer games.
    – Given the expanded games in 2021, there is room for the 1st and 2nd tier of CBs to impress. At 23, Pineda looks like a good candidate for that 2nd tier.

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  2. Is EPB not on this list because he’s a LCB? Seems like it’s worth a look to see if he or Ream should be the backup option to Brooks at LCB

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  3. This sounds nice but the way GB rigged his call sheets for these two games, you’re watching known veterans, mostly frustrating, start, and the kids who might shove them aside are relegated to 10-30′ cameos that struggle to make a case. Richards is probably better than Ream and Miazga. He was not set up to push them. They got to start and despite embarrassing themselves, they hogged so much time that a conservative coach will claim Richards doesn’t have enough PT to displace them, which is amusing because you rigged the game to come out that way. Ditto this. You can see Long and Zimmerman will start. Whether any of the rookies could break in is besides the point. The reality is the veteran 6 are basically competing with each other for senior time and the kids are being auditioned for U23 in practice. If you like the veterans the game is rigged for them to decide it among themselves. If you think kids are better and we need better defense to compete regionally and at a world cup, it’s a travesty where as per normal operating procedure we hone down to a frustrating short list of veterans and they rotate the job amongst each other no matter how had they look. This might make sense fresh off a world cup quarterfinal or Gold cup win or if they look good. It’s pro veteran bias if you think they’ve struggled. And the consensus wisdom seems to be we need help at back. So to me the kids should be getting 90’ish to show they are at least better than backup options like Ream Miazga Zimmerman if not better than Brooks or Long. Anyhow, the myth is this is experimental. He starts mostly incumbent starters plus a very few of the elite prospects. He barely plays the subs. The fix is already in for the ones he starts and the subs are barely getting any time to prove otherwise.

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    • Soto and Ledezma are exceptional because they play a production position where despite being messed over they can get a quick couple Panama goals and show up the coach no matter how little he plays them. In contrast backs are usually defined by quietly doing a job so how do you make a back case in 10′? Richards even made some plays but I can tell you what GB says — “He looked ok but didn’t play enough to be sure.” GB lacks Klinsi’s chutzpah to truly run with a personnel idea no matter what their experience level is.

      Someone might remind the coaches these games are for looking at people and we are allowed 6 subs for a reason. Like walking talking confirmation bias the way we use our minutes right now. Let’s play the starters 80′. And Miazga and Ream get burned and no one else gets time to show them up.

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    • I agree that some players didn’t get a chance to show what they can do under GGG.
      Richards started for Bayern in a UCL match while getting 10 mins vs a second string Panama side
      After the game against Wales, Richards should have started next to Ream

      Also, playing Lletget as a false 9 when you are trying to figure out if Soto or Gioacchini can play? That was a waste as both Soto and G. showed one of them should have started against Wales

      GGG gets an A+ on player recruitment
      But, the jury is still out on whether he can get them to play well together (against top class opponents) and allocating playing time to the best / most deserving players

      (remember Adams in the RB role? ughh)

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    • It is impossible to evaluate a CB in a single game much less in a cameo showing (unless the showing is truly awful). Like it or not GB’s choice will be based upon how well the CBs have done against good competition over several games, and how they fit into his system, not by how well or poorly they might play in the next friendly.

      Of course if you do not trust GB’s decisions, then it scarcely matters what he does.

      For my money,right now that means in December it is Zimmerman and McKenzie who will get the start. Long has struggled much of this season and a good but brief run of form at the end is not enough.

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    • All the discussion here seems to ignore an important point.Because of COVID and the calendar, Berhalter hasn’t really had a chance to put together a team of players from both MLS and Europe for at least a year. So, vs. Wales and Panama he had to use mostly all European players and now he has to use only MLS players. So you can’t really say he ignores one guy for another when you are comparing players from these different pools.

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      • On the excellent players left out for Europe you could name the excuse, and none were backs. You can also see how despite calling in Richards he only played 10′ behind struggling veterans who gave up 2 goals to Panama. In terms of this game coming up, there is not really some long list of missing MLS CBs to cloud who he favors, and my point is that based on this list I anticipate 2 more regulars play — Long and Zimmerman — about whom people already complain. I personally like Long but I am just being real about others’ opinions. And so the look to me is both games the veterans get the lion’s share of minutes. JR will then make fun of suggesting later on anyone who is “inexperienced.” But given a mere few 2020 games we didn’t hand out much new experience to test that. My point is this is set up where a group of about 6 frustrating veterans compete for a job they already monopolize and no one else gets to show they are better. JR refers to new fowards and wingbacks we played but for some reason the horrifying CB position is immune. And if we struggle some in NL or quali remember that I was complaining that GB limited his opportunities to the usual suspects, just like Arena wouldn’t bring new blood in his roster.

    • In November Berhalter started Dest (20) for his 4, 5 camps. Musah (17) and Reyna (18) 1 and 2 caps. Giaocchini (20) 1 and 2 cap. Llanez (19) 2 and 3 caps 2nd start. Konrad (18) first cap a start. Johnny (19) 1 and 2 caps. Even going into the camp Tyler Adams had only 10 caps and McKennie had only 19. In January 4 guys under 21 got their first caps. To try this bs that he’s just playing all these recycled old players is just ignoring reality.

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      • So because he uses a handful of players it’s a youth movement? Ha. And you ignored my point about the backline. You didn’t name any CBs. Because he played the usual suspects. We have a struggling backline of the same old same old and he’s rotating the same CBs and will probably over the course of this game and the last give kids maybe 10-30′ of cameo and no real chance to overturn a frustrating status quo.

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