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Hold the Line

De-Fense!: Rough Weekend for American Defenders

ASN's defensive specialist takes a look at how members of the United States national team fared in their first games back after international break. The verdict: Um...
BY Andrew Lewellen Posted
October 23, 2012
1:04 PM
Editor's note: Hold the Line runs every Tuesday on ASN.

Coming out of the United States’ World Cup Qualifiers against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala, the biggest question mark about the team was its defense. In those two matches, the offense began to prove its depth and find its form. There was Eddie Johnson’s two goals against Antigua & Barbuda and his dynamic performance against Guatemala; Clint Dempsey’s two opportunistic finishes in the goal box in the 3-1 victory over the Chapines; Michael Bradley’s dominance in central midfield.

Despite this strong offensive showing, the defense looked vulnerable and disorganized. It surrendered a weak goal against Antigua & Barbuda, with several players, including Geoff Cameron, misplaying their marks and Clarence Goodson slipping in front of goal. Then, against Guatemala, five minutes into the game, Cameron and Carlos Bocanegra were both caught out of position, and they let the 33-year-old Carlos Ruiz in behind them to score the game’s opening goal.

At this point, it’s safe to say that after the team’s last four qualifiers, nearly ever position in the back line is up for grabs. Age is chasing down Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra, both of whom are 33. None of the five other defenders Jurgen Klinsmann included in the rosters—Geoff Cameron, Maurice Edu, Clarence Goodson, or Michael Parkhurst—have staked their claim as a consistent starter in the defense. Heading into the team’s November friendly against Russia, the Final Round of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, and the 2013 Gold Cup, the door is wide open for defenders to prove their worth and value to their clubs and get a shot at the national team.

Given these circumstances, this past weekend the time was nigh for American defenders to shine.

Unfortunately—for the individual players and for the national team as a whole—across the globe, from Germany to England to San Jose, American defenders looked rusty, or, at the very best, dull and unpolished.

Let’s start with a few of those players who were on Klinsmann’s roster.

Geoff Cameron—ASN Rank No. 7
Four days after defending the aging Ruiz, Cameron, playing right back for Stoke City, was tasked with marking Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, Robin Van Persie, and Danny Welbeck. The entire Stoke defense looked disorganized and clumsy in their 4-2 loss to United, with players consistently losing their man in the offensive waves of attack Manchester heaved at them throughout the match. Cameron fell to this same fate when, in the 46th minute, he let Danny Welbeck slip past his front shoulder and head home a Wayne Rooney cross for Man United’s third goal.

Cameron has found a consistent spot in Stoke’s backline this season at right back. The difficulty he faces is that he’s been transitioning from that position with his club to center back with the national team. The effects of that shift in position showed when he was caught out against Guatemala. However, though the subtleties of positioning and offensive role vary between outside back and center back, the basics of defending—marking, awareness of opposing players, good communication—do not. Cameron will need to continue to develop his abilities at Stoke if he wants to keep his spot in the American back line. And, of course, with his club squad.

Steve Cherundolo—ASN Rank No. 5
As Hanover’s captain and its leader on defense, Steve Cherundolo is responsible for keeping things organized at the back. This weekend, he seemed to struggle in that role. Hanover gave up three goals in its 3-1 loss to Eintracht Frankfurt: In a quote on Hanover’s website, Cherundolo said Hanover was simply “flat-footed.”

Moving ahead, Cherundolo will need to find ways to remedy those issues in order to prove his value to Klinsmann as not only a talented defender but also as an integral veteran on the national team.

Fabian Johnson—ASN Rank No. 6
Also in Germany, Fabian Johnson, who missed the most recent qualifiers with a stomach illness, was part of a Hoffenheim defense that gave up three goals in a 3-3 draw with Greuther Fürth, including the game-tying goal in stoppage time.

Johnson’s greatest asset isn’t simply his playing ability but the fact that he plays left back, a position where the U.S. has historically needed help. His performance with Hoffenheim this season, along with his quality contributions to the national team—particularly against Jamaica in Columbus—put him in good standing with the national team. But still, nothing in this American backline is guaranteed right now.

As for those on the outside of the national team hoping to get a call-up:

Tim Ream—ASN Rank No. 34
Ream got a rare start for Bolton against Bristol City. Unfortunately, he gave up the penalty that lead to Bristol City taking a 2-0 lead. Bolton came back for a 3-2 win, but Ream’s performance won’t help his efforts to earn a consistent role in the Wanderers' lineup. The 25-year-old figured prominently in Bob Bradley’s U.S. back line through much of 2011 until he made several costly errors in the Gold Cup. Ream hasn’t made a single appearance for the national team in 2012. He’ll need to appear more regularly for Bolton—and put in some solid showings—if he’s going to get another crack at the national team.

Eric Lichaj—ASN Rank No. 26
The heralded 23-year-old, long considered a promising youngster, finally earned a spot in Aston Villa’s back line when he came on as a sub against Fulham. But he, like Cameron and Ream, was involved in giving up for a goal. Lichaj’s error, though, was more costly than either of his countrymen’s: it allowed Chris Baird to score the game-winner.

Omar Gonzalez—ASN Rank No. 21
The man who fans and pundits alike are hoping to see in a national team uniform did not help his case this weekend in the Galaxy’s 2-2 tie against San Jose in the California Clasico. Early in the second half, running toward his own goal while marking Chris Wondolowski, he misplayed a long ball and allowed it to fall to Wondolowski’s feet. Wondo collected the ball and from about twenty yards out—a considerable distance for Major League Soccer’s leading score (he usually does most of his finishing in the penalty box)—struck a half volley that smacked off the post.

Gonzalez, who after the game expressed his frustration at the ‘Quakes physical style of play, went on to be victimized in San Jose’s two goals, each of which tied the game. On the first, Martin Chavez curled a free kick over the Galaxy wall, just past the head of the 6’5” Gonzalez, into the goal. On the ‘Quakes second goal, Gonzalez lost Wondolowski on a corner, and Wondo emerged from the pack of players around the penalty spot to head home the game-tying goal.

We learned from Jurgen Klinsmann’s most recent roster selections that performing well for one’s club doesn’t guarantee a spot on the national team; in case you forgot, he left out Jozy Altidore, who had nine goals in 10 games in Holland, and Wondolowski, Major League Soccer’s leading scorer. But while a solid club performance may not be enough for a player to keep his spot on the national team roster, it’s certainly a prerequisite for a player trying to earn a call-up.

Spots in the United States defense are up for grabs. Over the coming weeks and months, we’ll see what American defenders have the ability, the determination, the desire to step up and prove their worth to their club, and, hopefully, their country.

Andrew Lewellen (@AndyHLew), a former college soccer player and youth coach, is now a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Read more of his soccer writing on his blog, Andy’s Pitch.

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