Photo by David Bernal/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — Inexperienced. Shaky. Lacking chemistry. Weak link.
Criticism about the U.S. Men’s National Team’s defense has been abundant in the run-up to the World Cup. Some of it is understandable given a few of the back line’s recent performances and how short they are in terms of World Cup appearances. But if you ask the Americans about that inexperience and how it will affect the likes of Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez once Group G play gets underway against Ghana on Monday, they will tell you that far too much is made of it.
After all, it is not like they are young players at the start of their professional careers.
“I think they might be a little nervous in the beginning, but once they kick the first ball they’ll be fine,” said left back DaMarcus Beasley – one of the veterans expected to help lead the U.S. back line – in a recent interview. “They’ll forget about the fans, the crowd and just go out their and play football because at the end of the day it is a game of football.
“It is a very high level, important game, but at the end of the day it’s a game of football and just try to be exactly what you’ve been doing for the last 2-3 years that got you on the team.”
All signs are pointing to the back four against Ghana being Beasley, Cameron, Besler and right back Fabian Johnson. Beasley is the only one out of that group to have previously played in a World Cup, but none of his seven tournament appearances dating back to 2002 have come with him playing in defense.
That has led to much scrutiny from media and fans, especially since games against star-studded attacks like Portugal and Germany also await the U.S. in the group stage. But the Americans have remained confident in the face of that outside noise. There is a belief from within the group that this set of defenders might even be better equipped to take on the physical and speedy Ghanaians than the veteran-laden back line that was unable to do so four years ago in a Round of 16 match at the World Cup in South Africa.
“I think we’re younger and we’re more athletic,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, another veteran who will be heavily counted on to provide leadership. “The way we pressed teams – particularly late on in qualifying – was really, really good. I think we can cause them trouble in that regard.”
On top of being more athletic, the much-maligned U.S. defenders are also better now at passing out of the back than their experienced counterparts of four years ago. That’s a key attribute in head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s system and something that has improved in recent years with the introduction of technical centerbacks like Cameron and Besler.
Even so, it is how the U.S. defenders fare against the talented opponents they will meet that ultimately will decide how they are judged this summer. One player who will likely help them in their cause is defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman, who has recently pieced together some consistently-solid performances in front of the back four. He looks a safe bet to start against Ghana after doing a fine job in his No. 6 role in the Americans’ 2-1 win over Nigeria in their final pre-World Cup friendly.
“Kyle’s a guy, he loves to make that [stuff] work for the team,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “He’s always one of the guys who pushes the team and pushes the players and he never gives up. Sometimes you need that kind of player in the team.”
If it is occasionally necessary to have a “pure giver” – as Klinsmann often describes Beckerman – to achieve success, it would appear vital to also boast some veteran leadership. Howard and Beasley have that to spare, and they will be leaned on to help provide organization and guidance through the ups and downs that tend to come with World Cup games.
The other, less-experienced players in the back will need to do their part as well, but the belief is that they have more than enough talent to do so.
“I know what they can do,” said Beasley. “Jurgen, he knows what they can do as well. If he didn’t think they could do the job, he wouldn’t have selected them to be a part of the national team, moreso probably the World Cup team. We all have confidence in our back line, myself included. … I have all confidence in the 7-8 guys that we have defending, that whoever he picks will get the job done.”
Think the American back line can get the job done against Ghana and the rest of Group G? Confident in a starting back line of Johnson, Besler, Cameron, and Beasley? Hope Klinsmann starts Beckerman for additional protection?
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