For the better part of a decade, Steve Cherundolo and Carlos Bocanegra have been key figures for the U.S. Men’s National Team, but now as both have moved past 30 and closer to the end of their careers we are faced with the harsh reality that there haven’t been all that many players to emerge in recent years to pose serious challenges to their positions.
Because of that, we haven’t seen all that many new challengers, and new faces to earn enough looks to be serious contenders for their places. Yes, we have seen some players like Geoff Cameron and Michael Parkhurst emerge as viable options for centerback and right back just this year, but there is still very much a sense that the player pool, at least at those positions, is very shallow.
Timmy Chandler looked like he might emerge as Cherundolo’s clear-cut successor, but that was before he suddenly decided he was too busy to play for the national team. Bocanegra hasn’t even had that brief luxury, and is therefore still serving as a regular starter even as his skills and speed diminish.
So where exactly are the centerbacks and right backs to step in and fill the void once Cherundolo and Bocanegra are no longer viable options? There are actually several young defenders developing into solid pros, and it is a very good bet that a few of them will emerge in the next year or two to challenge for the thrones currently being held by the veterans who are just about ready to call it a national team career.
So who are the players coming up to challenge for those places? Here is a look at 11 centerbacks and 11 fullbacks, all 25 or younger and none of which have played a single minute for the national team in 2012 (NOTE- I included Alfredo Morales and Tim Ream to the original 20-player list). Any one of the 22 could step up to be national team regulars between now and the 2014 World Cup, and beyond.
USMNT DEFENDER PROSPECTS
Omar Gonzalez. Would likely have already been in the national team mix if not for a torn ACL suffered in January. Boasts good size, underrated technical ability and a nose for goal. Has it all to become a national team starter.
Tim Ream. A national team starter in the 2011 Gold Cup, Ream has seen his career take a bit of a detour after Bolton’s relegation and his early-season benching this season. He’s still a talented left-footed centerback who is one of the best passers in the pipeline, but he needs to get his club career settled before he can mount a serious national team comeback.
A.J. Soares. One of the more underrated centerbacks in MLS, in part because of the lack of success of his team (New England Revolution), Soares boasts strength, good quickness, sharp technical ability and two good feet. Coaches around the league love his skill set and it’s only a matter of time before he gets a call-up.
Matt Besler. Talented and left-footed, Besler is a steady force on Major League Soccer’s toughest defense. Jurgen Klinsmann has already taken notice of is solid all-around game, having made him an alternate for recent national team matches.
George John. Took a step back in 2012 because of injuries, but John remains a serious prospect. Combining good size and technical skill, John might need a strong 2013 to get himself back on the national team radar, but he has the tools to definitely merit a look from Klinsmann.
Matt Hedges. The FC Dallas rookie has really emerged as a force at centerback, and while he may still need to get a bit stronger, he boasts good height (6-foot-4) with great feet for a big man. He plays like a smaller player, in part because of a late growth spurt, and he’s improving at an impressive rate (and he’s only 22).
Austin Berry. While he is the front-runner for MLS Rookie of the Year, Berry ranks behind Hedges on the long-term prospect list because he’s two years older and isn’t as technically skilled as Hedges. That said, he is mature beyond his years, dominant in the air and already plays the position like a seasoned veteran.
John Anthony Brooks. The youngest centerback on this list at 19, Brooks is breaking through at Hertha Berlin and is starting to grow into his frame to a point where he should soon start drawing attention from national team coaches. While the 2014 World Cup is probably too ambitious for Brooks, he’s definitely a long-term prospect with the skills to be an eventual starter.
Amobi Okugo. Made the move from defensive midfield to centerback in the middle of the season with the Philadelphia Union and has blossomed at the position. Combining strength, outstanding athleticism and the feet and passing ability of a midfielder, Okugo could wind up be a revelation at centerback (assuming he stays there). Oh, and he’s still only 21.
Ike Opara. The forgotten man who once would have been near the top of this list a few years ago, Opara has endured injuries and a struggle for playing time on Supporters Shield-winning San Jose Earthquakes. That still doesn’t mean he can’t put it all together in the next two years to challenge for a national team call-up. Arguably the most athletic player on this list, Opara needs to stay healthy and earn a full-time spot and he could skyrocket up this list.
Chris Schuler. Much like Opara, Schuler has a tough time earning steady minutes on a stacked Real Salt Lake roster, but what he has shown when given the chance is a scary good set of skills to go with the strength and size you want in a centerback. When you’re 6-foot-4 and your coach shows enough confidence in your skills to play you at fullback, it shows just how talented Schuler is. He’s the oldest centerback on this list, but just turned 25 last month. Not exactly old.
Eric Lichaj. When you are playing well enough to earn minutes in the English Premier League in consecutive years you are doing something right. Klinsmann’s failure to call Lichaj up yet remains a bit of a mystery, but the fact remains he’s young, talented and versatile and is now looking like the best long-term option at right back in the pool (assuming Timmy Chandler never returns).
Chance Myers. Arguably the best young right back in MLS, Myers shook off some disappointing early years in MLS to quickly become a force for Sporting KC’s stingy defense. With a great motor, solid defensive qualities and the ability to be a threat getting forward, Myers has played well enough to merit a look from Klinsmann next year.
Steven Beitashour. One of many players to blossom in 2012 on the San Jose Earthquakes, Beitashour has already caught Klinsmann’s attention with his speed and dangerous crosses from the right back position. At 25, he isn’t the youngest player on this list, but he’s clearly on the radar and has plenty of time to challenge for a place.
Tony Beltran. Often overshadowed by the other defenders on Real Salt Lake, Beltran is one of the most consistent defenders in MLS and steady force at right back.
Kevin Alston. Has seen his stock hurt by New England’s struggles, but after enduring some injuries and dips in form, Alston has enjoyed a solid season and has also flashed his versatility with a stint at left back instead of natural right back spot. His speed is a serious weapon and when he’s on, he’s as good as anyone on this list.
Justin Morrow. A left-footed defender versatile enough to play centerback or left back, Morrow has been very important to San Jose’s defense and is a viable option at left back on the national team level.
Alfredo Morales. Called up earlier in the year by Klinsmann, Morales is not cap-tied to the USA, and is eligible to play for Germany or Peru. Until he becomes a regular on the club level, and until he is cap-tied to the USA, he will remain someone who is promising but on the fringes of the USMNT radar.
Greg Garza. At 21, he’s the youngest fullback on this list, but he has shown in stints with Mexican leaders Club Tijuana that he is a very talented left back with a bright future.
Seth Sinovic. Not the flashiest fullback around, but his tireless work at left back is one of the key reasons Sporting KC can pressure teams into submission.
Connor Lade. The New York Red Bulls rookie has been used all over the field, impressing Thierry Henry enough to call him the team’s MVP. Most likely a right back on the international level, Lade’s lack of height (he’s 5-foot-5) is a hindrance for the international level. That said, there were plenty who questioned if he’d be too short for MLS too.
These aren’t all the quality young defenders in the pipeline (and we left out Chandler given his national team uncertainty), but this list provides evidence that the cupboard is far from bare. If players like Chandler and Morales and Sebastian Hines wind up being cap-tied to the USA in the coming years, things will look even brighter (but if Chandler has taught us anything, it’s that we are probably better off focusing our attention and energies towards players who are actually eligible and committed and tied to the USMNT already, rather than breathlessly following every player with any sort of tie to potential USMNT eligibility).
The players on this list may not all be ready to challenge right away for national team places, but as we draw closer to the 2014 World Cup, there is a good chance that the defenders who emerge to challenge for World Cup roster spots will come from this list.
What do you think of the defender talent pool? Which defenders do you see emerging as the best of the bunch?
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