USMNT analysis

Digging through the ever changing USMNT central defense depth chart

The U.S. national team backline used to be full of consistent stalwarts: Pope, Onyewu, Bocanegra, DeMerit, Besler, Cameron, Gonzalez - even the current USMNT manager was once at that level. But 2022 World Cup qualifying is about to begin and the position isn't settled. ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks at the depth chart.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 30, 2020
5:05 PM

THE UNITED STATES national team is still far from where it needs to be and this is true across most positions on the field. In central defense, in particular, there are plenty of good players but each has weaknesses and no one has a firm grip on a starting role or is even an automatic call up.

While soccer is shut down across the globe, ASN is going to be looking at various positions. A few weeks ago, we looked at the No. 6 position. Today we will look at central defense. In the days and weeks ahead, we will look at wings, center forwards, goalkeepers, fullbacks, and central midfielders outside of the No. 6.

Central defense right now is far from settled because, even among the top players, there are question marks regarding recent consistency and club situations. Among the next generations hoping to break into the top group, there are many questions about how far they are from being ready for the first team – especially with World Cup qualifiers fast approaching and the opportunity to look at these players ahead of the critical qualifiers might have passed.

Top tier

It’s impossible to say for certain since these times are uncertain, but the United States national team might have played its final games before World Cup qualifying. The CONCACAF Nation’s League semifinals and final in June remain uncertain, at best.

Assuming the leagues restart on schedule for next September and the Hexagonal World Cup qualifying phase begins in September, right now the likely scenario is that Gregg Berhalter probably sticks with his most known commodities.

On a roster of 23 players, typically four are central defenders. But in this case, if someone players a second position – perhaps it can be squeezed to five. In this case, it’s easy to see that happening since Tim Ream can feature as a left back as well.

So with that said, here’s the top tier likely earning call-ups for the first few rounds of the Hexagonal – or at least until someone else pushes them out.

John Brooks: Brooks is the most talented American central defender and, at times, he has been exceptional. Consistency is still an issue. When he was young, the hope was that he would become consistent to the point where he was regularly showing his high-level type performances. But he still is prone to stretches of uneven performances. Most recently, he was benched at Wolfsburg at the start of the season’s second half – only to regain his starting role when his teammate picked up a red card. So the question remains, which Brooks will show up in September?

Aaron Long: The Red Bull central defender was a top choice for Gregg Berhalter in 2019 after emerging under Dave Sarachan in 2019. He was a starter in the Gold Cup final and played well, despite the loss. But he missed the first two games of the season before the shutdown and his 2019 season wasn’t as strong as 2018. He wants to move abroad, and he certainly appears ready, but will that serve as a distraction? Also, if he moves, will he play right away?

Matt Miazga: While Miazga was a controversial omission from the Nations League games in October, it is hard to see him being left off the team for the critical games ahead. The question for Miazga will be what his club situation will be come the fall? As part of Chelsea’s loan army, will he make another move or will he stay at Reading? He’s done well for Reading this season (including three sharp performances after returning from an ankle injury before the shutdown) and he’s a safe starter there, but will he want to push himself into a top flight league? Or a promotional contender in the Championship? What will that look like come the fall?

Tim Ream: Even with his 33rd birthday approaching in the fall, the St. Louis native is still a very solid and dependable defender. While he hasn’t shined in the Premier League, he is an absolute rock in the Championship for Fulham (and Bolton before that – where he was the team’s Player of the Year twice). That’s a true accomplishment. Ream might not start for the national team if everyone else is playing well, but he is very likely to be a consistent call-up. He’s almost an ideal backup and with a steady-veteran presence. But it is also his ability to play left back that is key. Sergino Dest could feature at left back but if more of a defensive presence is needed late in the game, Ream is a nice option to have as well.

Walker Zimmerman: The Georgia native is now the rock of Nashville SC and is a player the team is counting on to be a foundation for future seasons. He’s also exceptional in the air. Zimmerman could be in jeopardy if Ream settles into a central defense role and not at fullback. He is also in jeopardy if any of the younger players emerge. But for now, he appears to be in the mix.

Next Tier

There is a long list of players who can potentially overtake one of the top tier players or get the call if there is an injury. None of them appear ready just yet, but could be soon with a productive next step in their career.

Erik Palmer-Brown: As part of Manchester City’s loan army, Palmer-Brown was once considered one of the country’s top young prospects in central defense. He’s flying under the radar these days but still might be among the best of the group looking to break into the full national team. This COVID-19 shutdown came at a terrible time for Palmer-Brown who could have taken the center stage of the U.S. U-23 team for Olympic qualifying. He’s also coming off a surprisingly good season with Austria Vienna. But where will he end up next season? Can he move beyond the lower-Belgian Pro League, lower-Eredivisie, midtable Austrian Bundesliga levels he’s been at recently?

Miles Robinson: In 2019 Robinson showed a high level with Atlanta where he thrived under Frank DeBoer and made his full national team debut. But avoiding the sophomore slump is key in 2020 and will tell us a lot about Robinson. Can he move into a Matt Miazga level who thrived with the Red Bulls after his second season as a starter? Or will he return to earth?

Mark McKenzie: McKenzie might be the most talented of the younger American central defenders in MLS. It wasn’t always easy for him in 2019 but he returned to Philadelphia’s starting lineup for its playoff push in the fall. That was followed by his U.S. national team debut in January. He will likely take a big role with the U.S. U-23 team as it adjusts to a new schedule for 2021.

Chris Richards: The Alabama native is deserving of a lot of the hype he is now receiving, and he is a regular starter for Bayern Munich’s U-23 team. He was also exceptional with the U.S. U-20 team in 2019 continuing a long line of American central defenders who have thrived in recent U-20 World Cups (including Palmer-Brown, Miazga, and Cameron Carter-Vickers). Richards probably needs another step to show he can anchor the backline of a club’s first team. Whether that is a loan or a transfer remains to be seen.

Cameron Carter-Vickers: The long-time veteran of both U.S youth national teams and the lower third of the English Championship, Carter-Vickers has not established roots yet in his career. Instead he has been loaned repeatedly by Tottenham to relegation-battling clubs of England’s second tier – with two loans being terminated prematurely due to playing time. He’s a good defender but is still roughly the same player he’s been the past two seasons. To get to the next level and break into the national team, he’s going to likely have to move beyond Spurs and move to a club where he can grow. It would also help if he can play more with the U.S. U-23 team.

Justen Glad: Like a few other players of his generation on this list, he’s playing roughly at the same level he has been in recent years. It’s certainly not a bad level as Real Salt Lake has been a decent team. He’s well experienced too having played 10,200 first team minutes for RSL across all competitions. That is a lot of minutes for a player who turned 23 last month but when will he raise that level and become an All-Star who is one of the best in the league and subject of transfer rumors? That is what is needed to break through with the full national team. The good news is that he still has the U-23 team to bide his time – but that is also becoming a tough team to play for these days.

Auston Trusty: Now with Colorado, Trusty will have to be a positive presence on a team that has an uphill climb to make the playoffs. He has a lot of people to pass to get to the full national team. Even within his own league, he has to pass Robinson, McKenzie, and Glad (who are all also U-23 eligible, like Trusty). He has the athleticism to do that and his left footed nature is a boost. But this is a pivotal season for Trusty.

Ventura Alvarado: At 27, Alvarado is no longer young but is in his prime. Berhalter is aware of Alvarado and was spotted speaking with the Phoenix native after a Necaxa game earlier this year. Alvarado has played at level worthy of a call-up over the past eight months, including wearing Necaxa’s armband for stretches in 2019, but he hit a terrible run in February where he was dropped from the matchday roster altogether. If Alvarado returns to a high level when the shutdown is lifted, he could get back into the picture for the first time since his last call-up in 2015. If not, he might just get passed over by the younger options.

Teenagers further down

There are always teenager prospects to monitor, but here are two that are still a way off the national team but could be interesting over the coming years.

Owen Otasowie: Currently in the U.S. U-20 picture where he should be a regular starter, Otasowie is exceptionally talented but he still needs to figure out if he is a central defender or a defensive midfielder. He’s in the long-term plans at Wolverhampton and is an exciting prospect for the U.S. team (while also eligible for England and Nigeria).

Aboubacar Keita: The Columbus Crew central defender started for the U.S. U-20 team at the 2019 World Cup despite only having recently returned from injury and having lacked professional experience. His performances were mixed but at times he showed why he could have a nice upside. He has the physical and athletic attributes the position demands. But this will be a test for the Crew organization to nurture his talent – because it is there. He is a long way off from the national team and beyond many players for the U-23 team, mostly because he is so new to the pro game. But it would be silly to discount him right now given his upside.

Older by viable options

Not all options are necessarily younger. If a wave of injuries combined with poor form hits top players, Berhalter might consider veteran options as a short-term solution.

Geoff Cameron: Mostly a midfielder, Cameron still plays central defense on occasion for Queens Park Rangers. At 34, he’s had a nice career but still could be an emergency option with national team.

Tim Parker: At 27, Parker isn’t old but it seems like Berhalter just isn’t interested in the Red Bull defender who partners with Aaron Long. Still with a mostly successful career, Parker could be a backup option.

Ike Opara: The North Carolina native has never really been in the national team picture despite a successful career with San Jose, Sporting Kansas City, and now Minnesota. At 31, it’s very unlikely he gets another chance but in a pinch? Maybe.

Omar Gonzalez: Gonzalez, 31, was in the national team picture in 2019 through the Gold Cup but he wasn’t part of the fall rosters as Berhalter shifted to younger options like Miles Robinson. Then in January camp, that trend continued with Mark McKenzie getting a look. Gonzalez might return, but it seems like he’s getting passed over by more and more players.

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