Unsettled USA defense must overcome lack of World Cup experience, cohesion
Jurgen Klinsmann used nine defensive groupings in the 10 games in the final round of World Cup qualifying, so it's no wonder why the United States’ back line has been the most scrutinized aspect of the team with the World Cup rapidly approaching. Questions of its inexperience linger, and those who helped the team qualify for Brazil won't necessarily be the ones lining up against Ghana on June 16 in Natal.
Three of the four who comprised that core group — DaMarcus Beasley, Matt Besler and Omar González — made the cut (Brad Evans did not), and they have been joined by five others, including two who saw time in the back line during qualifiers.
The battle for forward spots, which saw the likes of Landon Donovan and Terrence Boyd miss out, has been fierce, but the defensive configuration will be even more important because of the strength of the U.S.’s Group G opponents. The fact that no defenders on the final roster have been to the World Cup as a defender makes finding a competitive lineup even more difficult (Beasley is headed to his fourth, but he played in the midfield in each of the past three tournaments).
Two of the defenders Klinsmann used when the U.S. entered the qualifying process were already out of the picture. Carlos Bocanegra was sensationally dropped at the start of the CONCACAF Hexagonal, assuming a place on the bench against Honduras and never being called in again, and Steve Cherundolo retired after a long battle with a knee injury. From the 2010 starting back line, Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Bornstein haven’t received call-ups under Klinsmann, and Oguchi Onyewu also missed the initial 30-man cut after spot call-ups over the last year.
Despite his defenders’ lack of experience and the growing pains that have come with blooding center back partners Besler and González at the international level and moving traditional midfielders Beasley and Evans into the back line, Klinsmann has a confident air heading into his first World Cup in charge.
“There’s always a first time in life in whatever you do,” he said at a press conference at Stanford. “I’m not worried about the inexperience. I just hope that they can get up to task now quickly in the next couple of weeks and that they feel confident in themselves.”
Besler and Geoff Cameron lead the defensive contingent with 14 caps in the back four in qualifiers, friendlies and the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup combined. Cameron also spent some time in midfield.
Besler is probably the only lock to start in Brazil as of now. His distribution and calm demeanor have served him well in transition, and shaky moments have come seldom despite the fact that the 27-year-old’s first competitive cap (i.e. non-friendly) only came in March 2013, in a scoreless draw against Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
González seems to be the partner Klinsmann wants for Besler, but he will have to earn his place over there. His lower soccer IQ and faulty technique have been exposed against CONCACAF opponents and in friendlies against European teams, so he could struggle against the likes of Germany and Portugal.
He also carried a knee injury into camp, although he has returned to more full training after easing into the process. Klinsmann said the injury was worrisome at first, but it doesn’t appear to be serious.
“We are not concerned at all about Omar’s condition,” Klinsmann said upon announcing his 30-man roster. “It’s a very short period of time that he can’t go at 100 percent, so by the end of the week, he should be at 100 percent already.”
Klinsmann has reiterated his belief that Cameron is best suited to play in the middle, even after a standout season as Stoke City’s right back. He remains the U.S.’s best in a purely defensive sense, and he is prepared to play any position the coach deems necessary.
“This is a World Cup,” he told reporters at Stanford. “Any way I can help the USA, I’m going to do that, whether it’s playing right back, center back, whatever, I’m up for it and ready to go.”
One of Cameron’s best games in a U.S. shirt came next to Michael Bradley in central midfield. He took over for Jermaine Jones in a 2-0 win over Panama in Seattle after Jones suffered a concussion, but Jones has always been one of Klinsmann’s favorites.
Since Cameron likely won’t start at right back, if Klinsmann’s words are to be taken at face value, Fabian Johnson could be Cristiano Ronaldo’s direct combatant in Manaus instead. Johnson also played on the wing in qualifying, and he almost always appeared on the left side, but he plays right back often for Hoffenheim and made an appearance there for the U.S. in a closed-door friendly against L.A. Galaxy II during training camp.
That could mean left back stays with Beasley, whose experience will be important to have somewhere on the field in pressure situations, especially without Landon Donovan in the squad. With wing players Alejandro Bedoya, Brad Davis, Julian Green and Graham Zusi all on the roster, Beasley would have a tough time cracking the midfield anyway.
Putting Johnson on the right would be an elegant solution to the complicated problem of what to do with the most contentious spot on the back line. Klinsmann shoehorned Evans into the position during the Hex, and he stuck as the most frequent option since then.
However, natural right back Timmy Chandler is back in the picture and made the final roster after earning just one cap in the past two years. A disastrous 2-1 loss to kick off the Hex in Honduras was the last time he donned the uniform, and a series of injuries and a perceived lack of commitment to the U.S. kept him out of the running until his somewhat surprising inclusion in the 30-man roster.
Klinsmann has faith the tested and experienced Chandler, 24, has put his issues behind him. With Evans out and 20-year-old DeAndre Yedlin as the only other right back, Chandler suddenly looks like a viable starter for the U.S.
“He knew that he has to do a lot more work to come back into our picture because of the situation that happened in Honduras and how I looked at the team developing, and the team did extremely well last summer obviously with World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup,” Klinsmann said. “He got the message and worked harder and played on a very high level throughout the season until the knee surgery came. I encouraged him to keep going, and he is fully fit again. … He is a player that can make a difference if he is on his highest level. He has experience playing against very good and strong players throughout Europe, and that’s why he earned his way back into the group.”
In the modern game, fullbacks are often tasked with getting forward to provide attacking support, but against the likes of Germany and Portugal, the U.S. will likely be forced into a more pragmatic approach. The defenders’ first responsibility will be to stymie the opposition, and strong 1-on-1 defenders will likely earn their way into the lineup.
That’s why the inclusion of youngsters Yedlin and John Brooks, 21, in the final 23-man roster is such a surprise. Yedlin was shaky in two friendly caps for the U.S., and his shortcomings in defending on an individual level would be repeatedly exposed on the biggest stage. Brooks also showed his youth in his last U.S. appearance, getting shelled in a 2-0 loss to Ukraine in March.
Both could be along for the ride to gain experience before they are expected to fill larger roles at Russia 2018. With Klinsmann's contract as coach secured through that tournament, he can risk taking younger players to Brazil to get them up to speed, though the coach himself downplayed the notion that influenced his decisions.
Brooks made the final roster over Clarence Goodson, the only defender on the initial roster with World Cup experience. The Columbus Crew’s Michael Parkhurst was also cut; his Gold Cup appearances were solid, but not quite at the level they would need to be in Brazil.
The only settled position in the final 23 in a strictly numerical sense heading into camp was goalkeeper, where the FIFA-minimum three players were called in. Tim Howard is the undeniable No. 1 — Klinsmann has called him one of the top five goalkeepers in the world — but Brad Guzan filled in admirably for the SnowClasico against Costa Rica and the tough away qualifier in Mexico when Howard was injured.
He won’t be needed unless something truly strange happens, but third-choice goalkeeper Nick Rimando has been Major League Soccer’s best over the past few years despite never winning its Goalkeeper of the Year award. He deserves his chance to be in Brazil as much as anybody else who will make it, and he has the best foot skills on the roster at his position.
Especially considering the strength of the opposition and the inexperience of the players in front of him, Howard will have to be on point to organize and prevent goals for the U.S. to have any chance of advancing beyond the group stage. Luckily for his teammates, he doesn’t believe in taking time off.
“It’s just not in my make-up. I’ll take days off when I retire, but I always want to play every game because I think it’s important,” Howard, 35, said. “I don’t think you can turn it off and on. When you get rhythm, when you get confidence, when you feel good, you’ve got to keep that going. I’m going to train as hard as I can within reason, and hopefully if I get selected, play as many games as I can.”