USMNT analysis

A look at the USMNT centerback pool amid questions of age and form

In February, ASN is looking at all the USMNT player pool for all the positions ahead of two big tournametns in the first half of 2024. After looking at goalkeepers last week, ASN's Brian Sciaretta now turns his attention to central defense. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 09, 2024
9:55 AM

THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team is a little more than a month away from opening camp for the final rounds of the CONCACAF Nations League. In addition to regional dominance, these games will serve as an important showcase for players to build their case to be part of the Copa America roster. In central defense, there is a lot up for grabs.

In the last segment, we looked at the USMNT goalkeeping situation – and it’s a sobering take.

We’re not going to shift focus to central defense. The situation is not nearly as bad as goalkeeping, but it is also not great either.

One of the problems in the player pool for the USMNT central defense is that U.S. youth national teams have been struggling since the 2019 U-20 cycle to find young American central defenders who are top prospects. This is reflected at the club level where only three U-23 eligible (2001 birth year and younger) central defenders start regularly for a club either in MLS, any first division in Europe, Mexico, or South America, or in a top European second division. The players are Maximillian Dietz at Greuther Furth, George Campbell at Montreal, or Jalen Neal (who has been hurt since last July) at the LA Galaxy.

ASN had a feature on this problem in November. Since then, things haven’t improved.

This has led to a stagnant USMNT central defense player pool. It has been the same group of players for the last several years with only Aaron Long seemingly have aged out. The core pool its about six players and maybe another two more on the edge. After that, there are only a few more distant options pushing.

But the problem with the central defenders in the pool right now is that there are concerns over every single player and none of the prime age players are playing particularly well. Over the last several years, no one has emerged to convincingly grab a starting job except for Tim Ream, who is 36 years old. Behind them, no one is pushing hard to force themselves up the ladder.

What you’re left with is a pool that changes only moderately every month, but the level doesn’t increase. For all the talk of the national team improving and growing from 2022 and into 2026, the results might not change much unless the goalkeepers and defenders improve at the same rate as other positions.

Here’s a look at the status.


The USMNT centerback pool


Tim Ream: Ream has been a model as to how to bloom late in your career, age well, and also become a leader on the team. He came on late in 2022 and became an anchor of the World Cup team. He’s still good in 2024, but at 36 the question is when do the wheels come off? Father Time is undefeated. Berhalter should definitely keep Ream around, but he needs to have a backup option always ready because Ream might not be at the necessary level in 2026 at age 38.

Miles Robinson: After an average season last year in Atlanta, Robinson moved to FC Cincinnati on a rare “one plus one” contract that he hopes will give him better options in Europe that just weren’t there monetarily this past winter. On the field, Robinson needs to get better in Cincinnati and playing alongside Matt Miazga will help. He’s still firmly in the national team pool because he brings a lot of athleticism to the position and can play the high line. But his passing sometimes lacks.

Chris Richards: It’s safe to say Richards is held in high regard by Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT staff and he is certainly talented. But it’s also fair to ask how much central defense he has played over the past three years. Between injuries, sitting on the bench, and lately shifting around various positions (most of which aren’t central defense), it’s fair to ask how much he is developing and how ready he is heading into the Copa America to start in central defense. It’s good that he is playing in the Premier League but are the reps he is getting right now helping him progress?

Cameron Carter-Vickers: After years of bouncing endlessly around the Championship on six different loans from Tottenham, Carter-Vickers has finally been able to have stability the past two and a half years in Scotland with perennial champions Celtic. He has helped Celtic maintain its top spot in Scotland but is rarely tested in the Premiership. When Celtic are tested in European play, it typically doesn’t go well. But Carter-Vickers has dealt with injuries this year too. During his time in England, he was on an upward trajectory as his loans stings were getting better and better (he was outstanding for Luton Town and Bournemouth). But it’s tough to read how much he has progressed, if at all, since then. His passing is decent but not great. Still there is a lot to like as he is a USMNT veteran with World Cup experience and he can handle the tough, physical side of the game better than anyone else in the pool.

Walker Zimmerman: The longtime veteran will soon be 31 but he’s still in the picture as a player with World Cup experience and with someone who has captained the team in important World Cup qualifiers. He has spent the offseason and into the preseason rehabbing an Achilles injury and that was part of the reason why his last season in Nashville wasn’t his best. But like with any injury and players over 30, returning to preinjury form is never a guarantee. He hasn’t been with the national team since Berhalter’s return and now is likely out for March given that Nashville is taking its time with his recovery.   

Mark McKenzie: McKenzie has only been around the edges of the national team but whenever Berhalter is asked, he says he is always under consideration. He continues to plug away with Genk in Belgium and has even worn the captain’s armband on occasion. But it seems like he will be making a move this summer. The good news for him is that he always plays a lot and is generally consistent with his level. He has never truly convinced whenever given a USMNT chance but It seems like it’s only a matter of time before he’s back on the roster due to his consistency. Then it will be up to him. But of all the USMNT defenders in Europe, he’s been the most reliable at the club level outside of Ream.


On the Edge of the Pool


Auston Trusty: Its true that Trusty has helped his case since he moved to Europe from Colorado. His first season saw him play over 4000 minutes for Birmingham City and be considered one of the best players on his team. He’s in the Premier League with newly promoted Sheffield United, and it’s great that he has found his way into their starting lineup. But Sheffield United is getting pounded this year sitting last with a -40 goal differential as of February 9. Playing on such an overmatched team makes it hard to read his level. Perhaps next year will give a better reading when Sheffield United should be one of the top teams in the Championship.

John Brooks: The German-American Brooks has been polarizing for years dating back to when Jurgen Klinsmann was the coach and Brooks would see his form swing wildly from good to bad. But Brooks is slow and Berhalter wants more speed in the back. He’s also been inconsistent this year at Hoffenheim where he’s been in and out of the lineup under American manager Pellegrino Matarazzo. Right now, it seems as if a lot will have to change (both him surging in form and others in the pool dropping off or getting injured) for him to get back into the picture.

Erik Palmer-Brown: Last season, Palmer-Brown had a 3000+ minute season in Ligue 1 in France for a Troyes team that was relegated. But it was nice to see him play for two seasons at a club where he didn’t have to move on loan again. Despite Troyes’ relegation, Palmer-Brown played well and was mentioned by Berhalter as being in the picture. In August, he secured a move to Panathinaikos in Greece but hasn’t been able to get going due to injury. It’s hard to see him getting into the mix before the summer, but if he can start playing well for Panathinaikos and showcasing himself well in European competitions, he’ll be back around the edges of the team.

James Sands: The NYCFC veteran is tough to analyze because of his constant shifting between central defense and central midfield. But he’s still on the edge of the player pool given that at age 23, he’s the youngest player mentioned so far in this article. Plus, he has had some nice moments with the national team including winning a Gold Cup in 2021. He might be a good player in the Olympic overage discussion (he misses the age cutoff by six months).

Matt Miazga: the New Jersey native is 28 but has done too much not to at least be on the edge of the pool. He’s the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, he has played for a lot of European teams (all on loan from Chelsea) where he has seen a lot. He also has 28 USMNT caps to his name. But there is also the temperament issue – which can be both costly (such as being suspended for Cincinnati’s playoff games after going into the referee’s locker room) or it can be positive either in inspiring his team or rattling the opponents (such as when he taunted Diego Lainez in a friendly against Mexico).

Jackson Ragen: A little further down the depth chart you have who haven’t come through the youth national team setup but are having successful careers. Jackson Ragen has been a mainstay in Seattle’s backline with consistently strong play. It’s just tough to see when he gets his chance unless a window comes later in the year when Berhalter wants to look at new faces. Ragen missed a big chance when he left January camp with an injury. But among the uncapped centerback options, he’s near the top of the list.


YNT outlook


Central defense hasn’t been a strong point for any youth national team in about five years. The current U-23 team is paying the price, but Jalen Neal and Maximillian Dietz are still solid prospects. Neal is held in high regard with the Galaxy, but still only has about 1500 career first team minutes and hasn’t played since last July. He should be returning soon but it’ll take him some time to get back into form. Dietz is a regular starter for a Greuther Furth team in the midst of a promotion race in the 2.Bundesliga. For a U-23 level player, that’s a good level and he might be flying a little under the radar.

From the last U-20 World Cup, Justin Che has essentially moved full time to right back at ADO Den Haag in the second tier of Holland. Brandon Craig is a wonderful passer but will need to get regular playing experience on loan at El Paso in the USL.

From the upcoming U-20 team, Josh Wynder is a top prospect and is now at Benfica’s youth team. He should be one to watch in the coming years.

On the dual national front, Bryan Okah is one to watch given the lack of young American central defenders in their early 20s playing first team minutes. Born in the United States, Okah, 20, is playing for Switzerland but things can always change. He has 44 first team appearances for Red Bull Salzburg but injuries have severely limited him this season.




For the short term, Berhalter knows his options. The Nations League should see Ream, Richards, Carter-Vickers (if healthy), and Robinson called up. That will put those four in the drivers seat for a spot on the Copa America roster too if they do well in March.

The biggest question is Ream. When does succumb to age? No one knows and that’s why Berhalter will rotate Ream in and out of the lineup to have some sort of succession in mind. If there is an injury, Zimmerman and McKenzie are probably the next up for the Copa.

The other wildcard is the Olympic team. That team will probably need at least one but maybe two overage spots go to central defenders. Zimmerman might be a better fit for that than be a backup on the Copa America. But if there are injuries or drops in form that affect others, Zimmerman could be right back into the mix of needing to play at the Copa. Ideally, he leads the Olympic team.

Long term beyond the Copa and heading into 2026, options seem more limited as younger options haven’t been breaking through at a healthy rate in MLS. There is a good chance that Ream ages out. Zimmerman and Brooks creep into their mid-30’s.

The loss of those players leaves the pool with Richards, Robinson, Carter-Vickers, and McKenzie as the front runners. But without younger options catching fire and breaking out, then it becomes more important that players like Sands, Trusty, and Ragen continue to progress and provide the depth. As always, there will be injuries and drops in form.

Based on how Berhalter wants to play with athleticism, the best guess is that Richards and Robinson are probably the most likely pairing heading into 2026 – but so much can and will change.

For now, the biggest hope is that the 2024 MLS season sees the breakthrough of young options who emerge as starters with potential. The domestic avenue is a huge starting point for young American players but central defenders have been slow to play in recent seasons that it really needs to change or else options for the USMNT will continue to dwindle in the years ahead.

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