Centerback pool in a state of transition as USMNT heads into HEX

Photo by ISIphotos.com

By FRANCO PANIZO

MIAMI — It was not always easy for the U.S. Men’s National Team to crack open defenses and find the back of the net during the last round of World Cup qualifying, but to many fans and pundits the side’s weakness does not lie up front.

Rather, the team’s Achilles’ heel is widely considered to be in defense, particularly at centerback.

As the U.S. began its preparations for the start of the final round of CONCACAF World Qualifying on Monday, it did so with a group of centerbacks that has plenty of question marks surrounding it. From Carlos Bocanegra’s age to Geoff Cameron’s lack of reps in central defense at the club level to the pair of newcomers’ lack of international experience, there is plenty of concern regarding the status of the U.S.’s central defense as they head into Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Honduras.

The Americans recorded just one cleansheet in their six games in the last round of qualifying against the likes of Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda, and they know they will need to show drastic improvement in order to successfully maneuver their way through the Hexagonal and to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

“Listen, we’ve got some guys that have got to step up to the plate,” said Tim Howard. “Even though Geoff’s played in the Premier League, he’s not played a ton of games at centerback for the U.S., neither has Omar [Gonzalez], neither has Matty [Besler]. But this is where you make your money, this is where you get thrown into it and where the good ones become great.

“If it goes well, there’ll be one or two guys here that will go onto 100 caps because of this stretch.”

Bocanegra’s wealth of experience and his status as captain make him a lock to start against Los Catrachos in San Pedro Sula, but who is paired next to him is up for debate. On the surface, Cameron would be considered the favorite after having played next to the 33-year-old Bocanegra during the last round of qualifying.

“He’s still learning the centerback position, but you can see the improvement week in and week out,” Bocanegra said of Cameron. “When he comes in here I see his confidence, and it’s grows. I know that playing in the Premier League helps. He’s playing week in and week out. That transfers over to the national team, he brings that confidence in here, and you can see him improving and his confidence growing.”

As for Bocanegra’s own standing heading into Wednesday’s match, he is healthy and ready to take part in his third Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying.

“The winter break is nice. You get to recharge your batteries a little bit,” Bocanegra said of the recent Spanish League break. “Unfortunately the team’s not doing fantastic at the moment, but personally I feel good and a little bit rested.”

Klinsmann has turned to two new faces to serve as the understudies to Bocanegra and Cameron, with Besler and Gonzalez poised to move up the depth chart. They both impressed in the January camp and are strong candidates to take over as the next generation.

“We’re very pleased that we have people breaking through and they want to prove a point,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Omar is ready, Matt Besler is ready, they had a tremendous three-and-a-half-weeks camp, really very strong impression they left behind.

“That’s why they’re called in, the same with Brad Evans and Brad Davis. It was not all down to a Canada friendly game, it’s down to three-and-a-half weeks of commitment and performances in training sessions and scrimmages and that’s why they deserve to be here. But it gives us definitely more depth, it gives us more options and also the feeling there is the next generation knocking on the door.”

“You see guys like Omar, he’s been around but got injured, and a guy like Matt who won Defensive player of the year, they’re still fairly young guys as centerbacks,” Bocanegra said. “When I came in I was kind of lucky that all the guys kind of retired at the same time so I was able to get games earlier on, and I was playing in America as well.

“It’s a position where guys are going to have to come into sooner or later,” Bocanegra added. “These guys are getting confidence week in and week out, and they’re leaders on their teams, and they’re getting a taste of this environment and they’re only going to get better.”

Though he was not tested much, Gonzalez showed against the Canadians how much of an asset he is in the air. He cleaned up almost every aerial ball that came his way and also proved to be a dangerous target on set pieces, something which Klinsmann is likely to consider when thinking about the potential rugged terrain at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.

Besler may not have been as dominant in the air as Gonzalez, but his passing against Canada was crisp for the most part and he never made any real blunders against a Canucks side that attempted to absorb pressure and hit back on the counter. It was not a bad appearance for Besler by any means, but it is still unlikely that the Sporting Kansas City defender starts after having just that one cap to his name.

Regardless of who Klinsmann goes with, you can expect Howard to be offering plenty of instructions from in between the pipes as he knows all too well how rowdy it can get in a qualifier in Central America.

“One of my strong points is keeping myself in the game and 90 minutes making sure everyone’s organize,” said Howard. “That’s one of the traits that I think that helps me get through a game and so I’ll be on top of the guys. It’s just how they absorb it and take it it on board and adapt to it.”

Should they do that, the Americans’ defense might be able to put a halt to a potent Honduras attack that will be made even more dangerous by the lively crowd expected to attend the game while also proving that central defense is once again one of the team’s strengths and not a weakness.

“I don’t know if it’s an area of concern. The guys we have are really, really good,” said Howard. “If we can pair one of them with Carlos and get his experience and then the rest of it, we’ll be okay.”

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39 Responses to Centerback pool in a state of transition as USMNT heads into HEX

  1. Abe says:

    What about Zak Whitbread and Tim Ream? I see them both competing for CB spots on the 2014 roster.

    • 2tone says:

      Ream maybe. Whitbread no.

    • Peter says:

      Abe is right! The more competition, the better.

    • max says:

      Whitbread is terrible

      • wendellgee says:

        How so? If he can stay mostly healthy for the next year and a half he should be in the mix. In comparison to Ream, he’s gotten more PT for a better team this year.

        Now, the odds of him staying healthy aren’t good. But that’s the issue, not his ability.

    • Old School says:

      Tim Ream?

      When he learns to defend on a regular basis, perhaps. Until then? His distribution, which is incredibly overrated considering how prone he is to errant passes, means zero as a defender within the international stage.

      Again, Tim Ream? No thank you.

  2. Iggy says:

    last quote by Howard is key. Tough to see Omar or Besler getting minutes right away

    • Josh says:

      Agreed. Can’t imagine anybody but Cameron and Boca in the game until after the first four games. Especially with the way JK prefers experience over anything else. Hopefully Besler and Omar can get some minutes later in the hex.

  3. Colin says:

    Will Cameron continue to be a CB option if he never plays CB for Stoke?

    • Pat says:

      Bocanegra was continually an option at CB despite playing LB for Stade Rennes at club level. I know he played LB at times in last WCQ cycle but that was due to lack of depth at LB as opposed to better CBs

  4. Dudester says:

    What about Seb Hines?? If he makes it to the PL with borough people will be like where did this guy come from.

  5. Eric says:

    Can we please get rid of Boca already? He’s well passed his expiration date as far as a USMNT player goes. I’m not talking strictly age, I’m talking ability. Cherundolo is an older player but at least he still puts in top class performances. Can’t say the same for Boca.

    • Rakesh says:

      I think the Boca-bashin g is a bit uncalled for. It’s an important year for the MNT and we have to start off well. New, untried and untested CB pairings are not needed now. Boca and Cameron started quite a few games for us last year and didi pretty well. Boca may be slowing in pace but his positional sense, experience, leadership and organizational abilities are second-to-none. A lot of fans seem to be too caught up in the Gonzalez-Besler showings, but starting them in important qualifiers is not the way to go. They can start the entire Gold Cup tourney and play in all non-friendly games together, to gain experience and international-play savvy.Boca But until then, Boca is our captain and starting LCB. Boca in all likelihood won’t start in 2014 (he MAY still make the SQUAD as an experienced pro) but other CB’s will have plenty of time to get some play on the field. For now, I’m quite happy to have Boca leading and starting for our national team

    • Stephen says:

      I couldn’t disagree more. Boca still has plenty left in the tank. He may have slowed down in his older years, but his positioning and leadership are top notch. Until a pair of the young guys prove they can consistently play at the international level, Boca is a key player for the US. Notice the quote by Tim Howard at the end of the article.

    • ed - houston says:

      Boca can still play this year in the hex but come WC2014 he should not. We need to find his replacement asap or before winter max.

  6. Steve says:

    Three thoughts:

    1: Is JK’s insistence on some variety of defensively minded MF’s explainable by his concern regarding the unsettled CB situation? If the CB situation were settled for 2014, would he open up the starting MF to someone like Mix?

    2: Besler is going to beat out Gonzalez as the heir apparent to the LCB position.

    3. Besler, Brooks, Cameron, Gonzalez – 2014 – Besler & Cameron as the starters

    • Rakesh says:

      Couldn’t agree more about the Besler becoming the next LCB starting option. He’s the natural heir to Bocanegra (for a SHORT while, i thought Ream was) So many fans are clambouring for a Gonzalez-Cameron pairing but they are both RCB’s. Essentially they compete for the same spot. A natural left-footer should take over from Boca at LCB EVENTUALLY. Besler as all of 1 cap. Boca has 100+ caps, has captained his country as well Rangers, St Etienne, Rennes and Fulham, played in 2 World Cups and is beginning his third WC cycle. For the NEAR future at least, Carlos Bocanegra is invaluable

      • Dudester says:

        I still have a question if Besler is big and strong enough at the intl level.We will definitely find out in the coming year.

        • Josh says:

          That’s the same question he’s gotten most of his MLS career. Having watched him more, he’s much more of a smarter CB than a physical presence. Rather than relying on speed or strength to make up for bad positioning, he just gets the positioning right, something that could be invaluable with a guy like Cameron who’s not regularly playing CB.

    • Grant says:

      Would love to see Besler and brook or Omar take over and push Cameron into CDM. Obviously I’m talking down the road but if they both emerge that would be ideal for d and mid.

      • Edwin in LA says:

        I don’t know about D-Mid…..don’t we already have Jones, Williams, Bradley, Edu and Torres to cover that…..and hell for later this year at least JK has even the possibility of Holden

        I think if Besler and Omar or Brooks starter at CBs….Cameron could see himself to Right Back which is where he starts almost every EPL game….and that gives you the ability to play Chandler at Right Wing to actually have a real winger and depth for RB…..just a thought

        • Grant says:

          Just not in love with edu or Torres, nor is Torres a CDM, and jones hasn’t been playing that of late. Jones isn’t exactly young either. I just think its an interesting option. I would like to see him there if others step up at cb…..oh also I like Williams but he still has a lot to prove before I would just hand him the reigns

        • Ryan says:

          I’d be open to seeing Cameron play there. I’m not really sold on any of Jones, Edu, or Williams.

        • Dudester says:

          Klinsi would never play Cameron at rb. He likes his fullbacks to go forward and overlap.Cameron has shown that he is not very good at that with Stoke.Every time he gets I the final third he seems unsure of himself.

    • Lost in Space says:

      Steve – your 3rd listing is still a bit in the future…and potentially in doubt unless things change in the very near future.
      Brooks has been linked to playing with the German U-21’s…so there is the chance we could lose out on him. Besler & Gonzalez still need a lot of grooming and need to gain the experience of playing against higher caliber strikers.
      Because of the lack of experience, the possibility of Brooks loss, and the potential of the injury bug….we need to generate as much depth as possible.
      IMO our CB/Potential depth chart is as follows: Boca, Cameron, Besler, Gonzalez, Hines, Brooks, Goodson, Ream, Packwood, & Cunningham. Hopefully between WCQ, the Gold Cup, and the U-20 WC we’ll have a reasonable chance to blood the bulk of these guys and get them to sign up with the USNT.

      • Roman Lewandowski says:

        Brooks has played a few games for the Germany U-20 team, which is irrelevant. For most European countries, U-18 and U-19 are important. U-21 is for the players who have one foot in the senior setup. I think he has played for Germany a few times partially because it is convenient.

        If he wants to play senior international soccer, he will play for the US. Whether he has made that realization now or needs to wait a few years is the question. He has made interview comments suggesting that he sees himself as a US international. Of course, playing for Germany lately seems to refute that. We will know during the Gold Cup this summer. I think that tournament is cap-tying.

  7. wilyboy says:

    It’s going to be Cameron and Bocanegra, no controversy. Personally, I would have liked to see Cameron and Gonzalez together to build some chemistry, but this isn’t the time. A shame, because Bocanegra is as slow a centerback as we’ve ever had.

  8. Derrick says:

    Boca will start at least until after the gold cup where hopefully someone emerges.

  9. Ramon says:

    What Okugo? He has plenty of skill, good in the air, and I athletic. I know he’s inexperienced but I think maybe he should get some time this summer in friendliest and the Gold Cup.

  10. Jacknut says:

    I’d like to see one time where it doesn’t look like the defense all met for the first time at the pre-match photo. Seriously, when was the last match where the defense was locked in for all 90 minutes? Sometime in 2005, I expect.

  11. chris_thebassplayer says:

    I’d be real surprised if it isn’t Boca and Cameron in the middle…which scares the hell out of me, but not as much as Omar or Besler being thrown into the pressure cooker – real tough game for the CBs…Howard needs to have another big game…I’d like to see a 4-2-3-1 with MB and Jones in front of the back four.

  12. Mack says:

    all the talk about brooks is a little early. he is not a 2014 player for germany or the US. i think these are the 4 we take to brazil although i think the starters will be besler and cameron. if brooks is a confident kid he might think he can break into germany in the next 5 years. i would be really shocked to see him be cap tied by the B squad cup instead if taking a few more years to think about it. but please dont scream traitor at him yet, i think he ends up in the US just like chandler

  13. dan says:

    Dunno how you can call Gonzo an understudy of Cameron, they are the future CB pairing