Scrutiny, competition intensify for U.S. center backs Brooks, Alvarado

Young U.S. center backs John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado endured growing pains in the Gold Cup, and now the spotlight is on them more than ever, writes Brian Straus.
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. national team defenders John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado, each 22 years old and with a combined 19 caps to their credit, won the starting roles at center back for the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Now, as preparation begins for October’s Confederations Cup playoff against Mexico—a game necessitated in part because of several slip-ups in the U.S. defense—Brooks and Alvarado will have to win those jobs again.

Coach Jurgen Klinsmann backed the young defenders throughout July’s Gold Cup and apparently will give them the opportunity to regain their positions. But they’re going to have to earn them. Eight of the nine defenders called in for the upcoming friendlies against Peru (Friday night here at RFK Stadium) and Brazil (Sept. 8 in Foxborough, Massachusetts) play primarily in the middle. That’s an unusually high number. Brooks got the message.

“I think it’s normal,” that there should be competition for places, Brooks said prior to Thursday’s practice at RFK. “It’s not normal we have like eight center backs! But the competition is always high.”

Klinsmann said when unveiling this roster that the goal was to build a team that would beat Mexico on Oct. 10 at the Rose Bowl.

“This is really now about truly competing. It’s about competing for spots,” the manager said, adding, “I think that transition happens, especially with the two center back positions after the World Cup where Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks really came on strong towards the end of last season in their clubs and established themselves as the starters. The heat is on in that position.”

Neither of Klinsmann’s first-choice outside backs, Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley, is in camp. So the spotlight will shine on the center, where World Cup veterans Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron are among the players looking to unseat Brooks and Alvarado.

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Evidence from the Gold Cup suggests the competition is warranted. It’s not tough to imagine why Klinsmann felt Brooks and Alvarado had earned their chance. Brooks was a towering presence at Hertha Berlin, for which he started 24 Bundesliga games in 2014-15. And of course, there was that iconic goal against Ghana at the World Cup. Alvarado was a smooth center back for CONCACAF champion Club América.

Klinsmann said during the Gold Cup that Alvarado eventually could play as a midfielder thanks to his superior touch on the ball.

The pair started in the friendly wins over the Netherlands (when Alvarado was substituted at halftime) and Germany and then in the Gold Cup group stage against Honduras and Panama. In the former, the U.S. saw its 2-0 lead halved when Brooks and Alvarado were beaten soundly. Brooks was pulled out of position by a run from Anthony Lozano and then Alvarado was sidestepped easily by goal scorer Carlos Discua. In the 1-1 draw against Panama, Alvarado was turned inside out by Luis Tejada in the 34th minute as Brooks lost track of the lethal Blas Pérez.

Still, the U.S. finished 2-0-1 in the group stage and dismantled Cuba, 6-0, in a quarterfinal. Alvarado started that game while Brooks sat. The pair returned for the fateful semifinal against Jamaica. The Reggae Boyz took a 31st-minute lead when 5'10" Darren Mattocks somehow beat the 6'4" Brooks to a long throw-in and headed the ball high toward the far post. Jamaica upset the U.S., 2-1, sending the Americans to the bronze medal game in Chester, Pennsylvania. There, Brooks could only flail at Panama’s Roberto Nurse as Los Canaleros took a second-half lead. They’d eventually win on penalty kicks.

Klinsmann came to his defenders’ defense following the semifinal defeat.

“We have a couple of very, very good center backs that we keep building,” he said. “They keep progressing and there will be a very intense competition between each other going into the future. There’s no reason to criticize them for the game. Actually, the opposite. They were all over the place. They did their job. And we came up short at the end of the day.”

Klinsmann emphasized that starting the pair was not about building a foundation for the 2018 World Cup.

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“They right now are already on a level where they deserve to play these games. They deserve to play the Gold Cup,” he said.

Brooks said Thursday that the CONCACAF championship tournament proved to be a welcome learning experience. Prior to the pre-Gold Cup friendly against Guatemala, he’d never played against a nation from the U.S.’s own confederation.

“It wasn’t easy, the whole tournament. But for me it was good to learn,” Brooks said. “It was a new competition—a new type of soccer. It was very tough games, very hard games and I took a lot out of it.”

How was it a new type of soccer?

“These games were like a war. Everybody was fighting. It was tough,” he said. “Not only for Ventura and me, [the Gold Cup] went for the whole team a little bit unlucky. But you have to keep going, and that’s what I do.”

Brooks has appeared in each of Hertha’s first four matches this season but started only one. Alvarado, now 23, has started three of América’s seven Liga MX contests. Neither is in midseason form. But according to Brooks, they’re ready and willing to put in the work and prove themselves.

“It’s always good when the coach trusts you. I tried to pay it back [with] a good game, always go[ing] hard,” he said. “I think we’re doing pretty well now. Every training session, every game helps us.”

GALLERY: U.S. Soccer in 2015