The Throw-In: New American Exports? Center backs are in
So the George John to Blackburn saga has reached an abrupt end — at least for this transfer window. The big center back is back with FC Dallas, which is great news for their fans as the team is still in pursuit of three pieces of silverware at once.
But a bigger movement is afoot. There’s a saying that fast-talking journo academics are fond of: Once, it's a fluke; twice, it's a coincidence; three times makes it a trend.
John became the third American center back younger than 25 to have garnered interest from a big-league European club over the past few months. Tim Ream and Omar Gonzalez reportedly also have been eyed up by various clubs in England, Italy and Germany.
Now, let’s be honest: Transfer buzz is usually an excuse to get overly excited over often baseless rumor-mongering. But there truly is a sense from many European clubs that the growing quality of American center backs has made the United States and Major League Soccer a legitimate place to mine for back-line help at one of the toughest positions in the world to play well.
And that is a very nice endorsement of the evolution of the American center back. He’s the next great export.
Time was, these shores were only reliable for one thing: quality, top-drawer goalkeeping. European clubs knew the US was a ‘keeper hotbed, thanks to the constant migration of ready-for-primetime netminders that began with Kasey Keller and continued with Brad Friedel, Marcus Hahnemann and Tim Howard.
But that’s where it ended. The Claudio Reynas, Brian McBrides and Clint Dempseys were the outliers — no European team would specifically look this way for a defensive midfielder, a target man or a deep-lying attacking terror.
Now, it’s the center back that is emerging as a reliable, plug-and-play commodity that the US system is producing. John, Ream and Gonzalez didn’t start this trend, but they’re the latest to draw interest and they all have some similarities in their backgrounds.
All were asked to step into starting roles for their respective clubs almost immediately upon being drafted. And each made an instant impact as a player with not just the physicality factor, but with smarts, calmness on the ball and intelligent distribution skills as well.
It helps that each player has been allowed to evolve next to a wizened veteran presence: Ugo Ihemelu for John; Rafa Márquez and Carlos Mendes for Ream; Gregg Berhalter for Gonzalez. And each youngster has the necessary humility to understand they have a lot to learn.
Still, their soccer smarts, mixed with their size, athleticism and tactical knowhow comprise a sophisticated skill set that hasn’t always existed at the position here in the US.
“You just didn’t see it before that guys were able to step in at that position in their early 20s and do a really good job,” veteran defender Danny Califf told MLSsoccer.com, “not just doing the job, but excelling.”
The Philadelphia Union star is one of the earlier success stories as an MLS-schooled center back who enjoyed a noteworthy European career. Califf won plaudits during his four years in Denmark. But even he admits there’s a new air of professionalism in the next generation of players at his position whose abilities are more advanced at an earlier age.
“When I was just starting out, I just did my job,” said the former LA Galaxy and San Jose man. “I wasn't a big talker or organizer. I had to grow into that.”
Interestingly, Califf actually laid a lot of the groundwork in showing European teams that American center backs could be cultured, smart players instead of simply possessing that “American physicality” that is so cliché across the pond.
Two other former MLSers-turned-Danish-leaguers, Michael Parkhurst and Clarence Goodson, have also done a lot to change perceptions of the Yank central defender abroad. Parkhurst’s pedigree, in particular, is hard to believe: In four years as a starter in MLS, the Bradenton Academy product was handed only four yellow cards in MLS play, an insanely low number at a position where, with the refs, the buck usually stops.
And his cultured play — his reliance on positioning and tracking instead of size, his intelligent read of the game — is what made him a smart buy by Danish side FC Nordsjælland.
“With Michael, he gave us something extra we did not find on the Danish market,” Nordsjælland sport director Jan Laursen told MLSsoccer.com. “He's very good on the ball, more of a playing center back than a physical center back.”
And Parkhurst’s lack of volatility is something that recalls legendary AC Milan defenders like Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi, dominant defenders who rarely committed costly fouls. Not that Parkhurst is in their league, but if you’re going to mirror a defender’s career, that’s not a bad place to start.
“For me, [Parkhurst] was an important player to have in MLS because of the way he played the position,” said MLSsoccer.com friend of the family Alexi Lalas, who may have a little perspective on American center backs. “It wasn’t that we didn’t have cerebral center backs in the past — we did. Guys like Robin Fraser come to mind. But to see an American who thought about defense in [the way Baresi and Maldini did] was great.”
MLS may not be able to hold onto John, Ream or Gonzalez much longer. But that’s OK. They’ve become the new prototype for how a homegrown center back should play the game. The professional template is clear for other young guys coming up through the ranks: Sporting KC’s Matt Besler, New England’s A.J. Soares, Real Salt Lake’s Chris Schuler, to name a few.
“It’s easy to see the talent when it comes to great goalscorers or big, creative attacking players,” Lalas said. “It takes a little more time and effort to drill down and track defenders because of the nature of position. It says a lot that [foreign] teams now have defenders in MLS on their radar and are tracking them as they would any other player of quality.”
Goalkeepers are yesterday’s news. The American center back is what’s now.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday. (Additional reporting by Greg Seltzer.)