The most surprising omission from the November’s U.S. men’s national team roster wasn’t Sergiño Dest or the strikers left off, but rather it was John Brooks, the veteran centerback who not too long ago was considered one of the mos irreplaceable players in the USMNT setup.
The Wolfsburg centerback has had a roller-coaster few months for both club and country, and his struggles during September’s qualifiers, coupled with his injury absence from the October qualifiers, opened the door for some other central defenders to make their case for climbing up the pecking order.
Those factors led USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter to leave Brooks out for November’s qualifiers against Mexico and Jamaica, going instead with the centerback quartet of Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards and Mark McKenzie.
Regarding John Brooks, it was a really difficult decision,” Berhalter said. “And a lot of it was based on how we felt his performance was with the team, the last time he’s been performing.”
Brooks struggled in the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Canada in September, then followed that up with a terrible 45 minutes as a starter against Honduras, a performance so bad it led Berhalter to pull him from the lineup at halftime of a match that went from 1-0 Honduras to 4-1 USMNT in the second half.
Brooks’ September woes carried over to his form at Wolfsburg, where he was in and out of the lineup for the month after those forgettable qualifiers. Brooks eventually settled back into a regular starting role, but that came as Wolfsburg was in the midst of a five-match losing skid that ultimately cost then-Wolfsburg manager Mark Van Bommel his job.
Brooks showed some more promising signs in his most recent performances, helping Wolfsburg post consecutive wins, in Bundesliga action against Bayer Leverkusen and in a UEFA Champions League win against Wolfsburg on Tuesday.
“We saw him play midweek in the Champions League against Salzburg, he had a good game, and he’s working his way back into form,” Berhalter said. “I don’t assume that this is going to be his last time in the national team. I’m sure he’ll be back. And it’s just about regaining your form and performing at a high level when you get the opportunity.”
Brooks responded to the omission from the November USMNT squad in classy fashion, telling Fox Sports he is ready to keep working toward a return to the national team.
“The decision to leave me out of this camp isn’t surprising, given some of my recent performances for the USMNT that aren’t up to my standards,” Brooks told Fox Sports. “My job now is to work hard to be the very best I can be. I feel great about this week’s Champions League performance and my recent play with Wolfsburg, and will keep building on my performance there, until I reach my goal of helping the USMNT reach the next World Cup.”
Berhalter praised Brooks’ reaction to being omitted.
“That’s all you can ask for as a player’s response, right,” Berhalter said. “Normally what players do is they start picking off other players and saying, Well, this guy is doing this, this, and all John did was take accountability for his own performance. “
Miles Robinson is expected to start in central defense in both qualifiers, leaving the spot next to him up for grabs between veteran Walker Zimmerman, who was outstanding in the October win against Jamaica, and Chris Richards, who was solid in his first World Cup qualifying start in the win against Costa Rica.
“Walker, we know is a valuable leader on the team,” Berhalter said. “We know he’s a guy that can perform at a high level. We’re gonna be looking for the same thing in this window, both on and off the field he contributes, and it’s important that our whole backline is aggressive, is able to move forward is able to condense the field, is able to build out a back. We put a lot of pressure on our backline to be good both defensively and offensively. Walker certainly shown that he can play that role.”
Berhalter believes he’s bringing a strong and versatile collection of centerbacks to camp, with all four having played in important matches for the USMNT.
“Chris Richards has been playing well for Hoffenheim,” Berhalter said. “They gave him off last week, we’ll be back in the lineup this weekend. He’s played a lot of minutes and been doing a good job. You know, we liked his performance, for the most part against Costa Rica, we thought he did a good job.”
“Regarding Mark (McKenzie), Mark has had World Cup qualifying experience, playing in a couple of these games,” Berhalter said. “And for him, he has that athleticism, he has the ability to cover the backline is a very good 1-v-1 defender, and we feel if we’re going to be pressing high, he’s a good player to give us cover in this camp.”