SBI Spotlight: John Brooks sets his sights on UEFA Champions League, USMNT captaincy, and more

SBI Spotlight: John Brooks sets his sights on UEFA Champions League, USMNT captaincy, and more

Americans Abroad

SBI Spotlight: John Brooks sets his sights on UEFA Champions League, USMNT captaincy, and more

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For all the excitement surrounding the impressive crop of young talents on the rise with the U.S. Men’s National Team, it can be argued that the team’s most indispensable player is one of its longest-serving contributors, and a veteran who just so happens to be one of the few players in the USMNT player pool to have played in a World Cup.

John Brooks, who won the hearts of American soccer fans seven years ago with his game-winning goal to beat Ghana in the 2014 World Cup, has gone from being a 20-year-old prospect who delivered that special moment, to now being a 28-year-old Bundesliga standout in the midst of a career year in what is shaping up to be a very important 2021 for him, his club and the USMNT.

Brooks has played a key role in helping Wolfsburg put together an outstanding season that has a UEFA Champions League berth within reach heading into Saturday’s clash with reigning European champion Bayern Munich. Wolfsburg is sitting in third place in the Bundesliga right now, with an eight-point lead on current fifth-place Borussia Dortmund.

Bayern is coming off being eliminated from this year’s Champions League by Paris Saint-Germain, which could leave the Bavarians vulnerable as they travel to Wolfsburg. If Wolfsburg can defeat Bayern on Saturday, Brooks would move that much closer to realizing a childhood dream.

“I’m honestly getting tired of watching Champions League Tuesday and Wednesday on the television,” Brooks told SBI. “I want to play there.”

This season has seen a record eight Americans appear in the Champions League, with most of them part of the ‘Golden Generation’ of youngsters breaking through with the USMNT. Brooks has never played in the Champions League, so being so close to that goal has him eager to see Wolfsburg finish out its strong campaign in style by securing the club’s first Champions League berth since the 2015-2016 tournament.

“That’s the reason I say we have to see every game like a final until the end of the season,” Brooks said. “After the (six) games, hopefully we celebrate that we qualify for the Champions League.”

Brooks’ excellent club form has only served to solidify his status as the clearcut best central defender the USMNT has, and the left-footed defender’s outstanding passing skills have proven to be a perfect fit in Gregg Berhalter’s possession-based system. It also makes him arguably the most irreplaceable field player on the USMNT.

“I think that’s an important part of it. Line-breaking passes, his ability to hit diagonal balls. (Brooks’) ability to be calm on the ball and manipulate the defense is really important,” Berhalter told SBI. “I think defensively, his aerial ability, and ability to win balls, is also really big for us. When you think about any time you’re playing against height, it’s no problem for him. He does a really good job of that.”

Berhalter is the fourth national team coach Brooks has played for, and the two have established a good relationship. They see the game similarly, and Berhalter’s background as a central defender who spent a large part of his career playing in Germany doesn’t hurt either.

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

“Gregg is great. We speak often, almost after every game. We text back and forth,” Brooks said. “I think Gregg has done some good things in a short period of time with the national team.

“He put in a new system. He wants to play out of the back,” Brooks said. “He wants to have possession, which I think is great  because why shouldn’t we have position against (teams like) Jamaica or somebody else, with all due respect. I think for us, for the group, it fits perfectly.”

Berhalter’s system certainly fits Brooks, who is known for his excellent passing from the centerback position, a skill that is a byproduct of him having played as a central midfielder during his youth career, before a five-inch growth spurt in the summer of 2006 eventually led him to a move to central defense.

“I played midfield till I was 16, I played center mid. So I think that helped me a lot to be confident with the ball. I want the ball at my feet, playing from the back and making nice passes, good passes for my teammates,” Brooks said. “I think I don’t have to hide behind anybody else.”

Brooks has experienced the full range of emotions during the eight years since his national team debut in 2013. He has felt the high of scoring a game-winning goal at the World Cup (a memory that still gives him goosebumps just to think about), and the rush of dominating a tournament like he did as one of the best players at the 2016 Copa America. He has also felt the lows of disappointing defeats and poor performances, including his shocker in a 2016 World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica when his mistakes helped spark a Costa Rica blowout that eventually led to the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.

“The Costa Rica game was, Oh my God man, I don’t know what happened,” Brooks said. “This was horrible. I felt like in this moment, like ‘Who the hell are you right now? What happened to your qualities for everything?’ ”

“I lost everything in this game,” Brooks said. “I lost my mind, my confidence, my everything. Yeah, this was a hard game for me. After 90 minutes, I was like ‘Oh my God, please. Hopefully this was a dream.’

“But I learned from it,” Brooks said. “A game like that never happened to me again. I think everybody who plays soccer will have or have had a game like that.”

It is that sort of experience that makes Brooks an important presence on a young USMNT with a large crop of players who have never experienced World Cup qualifying, much less a World Cup, with Concacaf qualifying for the 2022 World Cup set to begin for the United States in September.

Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos

“The first step is going through qualifying and (Brooks) has that experience as well, and that’s invaluable,” Berhalter said. “I’ve talked all along about veterans, and how they can help guide this group, and when we go through this qualifying process, although it’s new with three games in a window, it’s still just imparting the information to the rest of the team, how difficult these games are and what level of intensity is needed.

“And then I think you have a guy that that can say to the rest of the group ‘Listen, we’re doing it all because we want to get to the World Cup, and this is what the World Cup means having been there and having played in it.’”

The soft-spoken Brooks carries a level of a respect in the current USMNT setup due to that experience, and his successful career in the Bundesliga. He believes that standing makes him an ideal candidate to be national team captain, a role he has long coveted.

“Ever since I was little, in Berlin, of course I wanted to play for the U.S., and a big goal, a personal goal for me was to wear the armband,” Brooks told SBI. “I think, right now I’m going into camp 39 camps, hopefully after that Camp 40, and I’ve experienced playing in the World Cup, World Cup qualifiers. I think I can help the young team and lead them to the World Cup too. I have the experience. I play every weekend and one of the best leagues.”

Brooks has never been the most vocal presence within the USMNT, but he believes can be an effective leader despite not being the most outspoken player, much like one of his former teammates at the 2014 World Cup.

“I would compare myself with Clint Dempsey because I’m more quiet, I’m more into showing the people on the field, and not by talking to everybody,” Brooks said. “I’m more the guy to lead by example. I think Clint did a great job of that.

“We have also players with the potential to lead a team,” Brooks said. “Like Zack (Steffen), Tyler (Adams), Weston (McKennie), Christian (Pulisic), but like I said, I’m at the point now I have a lot of experience and I think also I can handle the pressure and everything that a captain has to deal with.”

Berhalter has not settled on a single consistent captain during his tenure as U.S. head coach, choosing instead to give the armband to a variety of players, from Aaron Long to Christian Pulisic, Tim Ream to Weston McKennie. Berhalter has also put together a leadership council of players, a group that Brooks has yet to be made a part of, though that doesn’t mean he won’t be a part of that group in the future.

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

“For John, it’s just a question of availability,” Berhalter said. “He missed the Gold Cup. He’s missed other games, so he wasn’t around enough, but I think his leadership is definitely valued by not only coaching staff, but the players, and I think as we continue to work with this group I think his leadership is going to play an important role.”

As Brooks moves into a new stage of his national team career, he hasn’t forgotten the challenges and difficult moments of his early years, including feeling unfairly labeled as “not American enough” when Jurgen Klinsmann brought in a group of German-born players into the USMNT setup during his coaching tenure from 2011 to 2016. Whispers about the level of commitment of those players, such as Brooks, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, Danny Williams, Julian Green and Jermaine Jones followed that group during Klinsmann’s tenure, and long after his departure.

“I grew up in Berlin, but I went to an American school. I was always the American boy. I always felt American,” Brooks said. “Military son, everybody knew what was going on. The first time I really got confronted with being called German was in America, and that was hard, and unfair also because I identified with the U.S. Everybody called me that (growing up). I felt American and I feel American.”

Today, Brooks finds himself part of an exciting young national team brimming with promising talent, with the likes of Pulisic, McKennie, Adams and younger sensations such as Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah. Seven years removed from being one of the youngest players on the 2014 World Cup team, Brooks now finds himself enjoying this new USMNT as one of its elder statesmen.

“When John’s in camp, he gives a steadying influence on the team,” Berhalter said. “He’s calm, he’s experienced, and it’s almost like he’s watching all these young guys and playing a father figure, so to speak, to these guys. He’s watching them, and he’s laughing with them, but he’s also in control. I think he’s a great influence on the team. He’s an important factor for his experience when you think about how young and inexperienced the team is.”

“I think this group is still different, very special, because we have a lot of players that are like same age,” Brooks said. “And they know they know each other for a long time going through Under-17,  Under-23. We always say it’s a brotherhood and it feels like that.”

The 28-year-old has already set about planning his future in the game. In the short term, his main goal is helping Wolfsburg qualify for the Champions League. Beyond that, Brooks does see a future playing in the United States. He likes what he sees when he looks at Major League Soccer’s continued evolution, and he believes his future will include time in MLS.

“I think the league is impressive. You can see the teams every year getting better,” Brooks said. “They have the money to get good players as well. So of course that’s also on my list. I want to come to MLS one day, of course.

“First I have to do things in Europe still,” Brooks said. “Like I said in the beginning, I want to play Champions League. After that, I’m totally into going to MLS.”

Brooks’ longer term goals also include playing long enough to be a part of the 2026 World Cup team. After enjoying a dominant 2016 Copa America on home soil, Brooks gets excited just thinking about what playing in a World Cup in the United States would be like.

“What can I say about the Copa America at home,” Brooks said. “I have 2026 marked on my calendar. I want to play at home in the World Cup, in front of the American fans. This feeling again, would be unbelievable.”

Brooks will be 33 by then, which would be on the far edge of the standard age range for a defender at the World Cup, but given how well he is playing right now, it isn’t a stretch to think he could still be in the USMNT picture in five years. Brooks also credits becoming a vegan in 2017 with helping feel leaner and stronger physically, while also helping him cut down on the injuries that plagued him earlier in his career.

Brooks also hears the growing chatter among American fans regarding the 2026 World Cup, and the possibility of having a U.S. team capable of competing for a title at a tournament that will be hosted by the United States as well as Canada and Mexico. He is careful to note that five years is still a long time away, but he has seen enough to convince him that the USMNT could really be a force in 2026.

“I think the fans can be excited because we really have a good, exciting group of young players playing at a high level,” Brooks told SBI. “For me, it’s also a lot of fun to play with these guys. I love to come to camp and play with these guys, but we still have to find each other. It’s like with my club. It takes time with national team. You don’t come that often together and it takes time to get to know each other.”

Brooks knows what that process can be like, having gone through it in the past with the USMNT, and more recently with Wolfsburg. His club is poised to reap the rewards of those years of developing together, with a Champions League berth within reach. If he can help his club achieve that goal then Brooks could find himself with a very busy fall. One that would include a loaded World Cup qualifying schedule, and also the first Champions League matches he would play in rather than watch.

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