It would be easy for Zak Whitbread to look back at the last nine months and think about what could have been.With better-timed good health, the 27-year-old Norwich City center back may already be on his way to the international career that has yet to materialize.
In the midst of helping the Canaries earn promotion to the Premier League last spring, Whitbread was called in for the United States' friendlies against Argentina and Paraguay in March, only to be forced to withdraw with a back injury. Not only did he miss a chance to acclimate himself with the U.S. setup for the first time on the senior level, but he missed what would've essentially been a tryout for the U.S. Gold Cup roster. Former coach Bob Bradley couldn't afford to gamble a roster spot on a center back he'd never had the chance to coach in a single camp.
The summer passed without Whitbread returning to the national team radar, and as the fall friendlies approached, the injury bug hit the Texas-born, former Liverpool youth player yet again. This time it was a hamstring injury that kept him out for more than three months and prevented him from registering as an option for Jurgen Klinsmann.
Having not played since an Aug. 27 match against Chelsea, Whitbread returned from his injury layoff this past weekend and was called upon to help contain Newcastle's front line and 11-goal scorer Demba Ba. Even though Whitbread was at fault for one of Ba's two goals on the day in the 4-2 Norwich triumph, he nonetheless earned postmatch praise from Canaries manager Paul Lambert and should have no problem holding on to his starting role -- provided he stays healthy -- considering the team's struggle for consistency at the position all season.
"It was a big ask. I think we did it with him last season against Queens Park Rangers, and he came in and did great. He never looked back," Lambert told the
Instead of focusing on what could have been, Whitbread is looking ahead to what still can be. There's room on the United States' depth chart at center back behind Oguchi Onyewu and Carlos Bocanegra, and there's still time to make an impression before the World Cup qualifying cycle commences. The 6-foot-2, blond-haired Whitbread is built in the mold of a traditional U.S. central defender. He has good size, can be dominant in the air, is a threat to score off set pieces and reads the game well. Continuing to start in the Premiership on a regular basis should keep him in the discussion for a call-up, which could come as soon as a yet-to-be-announced February friendly.
While Whitbread's return to action was a highlight of the weekend, he was not alone in standing out. Brad Guzan won in his debut as Aston Villa's No. 1 goalkeeper; Fabian Johnson continued his impressive form for Hoffenheim by delivering two assists in a victory; Onyewu tallied his second goal of the season to carry Sporting Lisbon to three more points; and Herculez Gomez sealed a transfer from relegation-threatened Estudiantes Tecos to Mexican Apertura runner-up Santos Laguna, where he will compete for one of Mexico's top teams while also getting a chance to see time in March's CONCACAF Champions League knockout stage.
On the other end of the spectrum there was Timmy Chandler, who got sent off in FC Nurnberg's loss to Hoffenheim; and Clint Dempsey, who followed up his record-setting goal achievement of last week by turning in a rare downer of a performance. He inadvertently redirected a shot past his own goalkeeper and had a late penalty kick that would have tied the score get saved in Fulham's loss to Swansea City.
Here is a closer look at how they and the rest of the Americans playing abroad fared over the past week (season statistics encompass all competitions):
Defenders Clarence Goodson (Brondby IF), Michael Parkhurst (FC Nordsjaelland) and Brad Rusin (HB Koge), midfielder Conor O'Brien (Sonderjyske) and forward Chris Rolfe (Aalborg BK) are all on break until March 3, when the Superliga season resumes. Parkhurst's side is four points behind FC Copenhagen for first place but currently sits in a UEFA Champions League qualification spot. On the other end of the spectrum, Rusin's Koge has just one win in 18 matches and sits dead last, needing a true turn of events to avoid relegation.