Geoff Cameron always seems to get the same question:
“Where do you think you should be playing for the national team?”
His response is always the same: It’s not my call.
“People seem to think it’s my decision, and obviously it’s not,” Cameron recently told MLSsoccer.com with a laugh. “There’s no point in worrying about where I play. For me it's a confidence thing. I’m just focusing on myself and trying to let my play do the talking.”
Cameron’s play over the past year has done a lot of talking. US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has implored his players to challenge themselves in the world’s top leagues, but Cameron appears to be the only field player to have risen to that challenge.
While most other big names in the USMNT set-up have returned to MLS in recent months, Cameron not only fought his way into Stoke City’s starting lineup, he did it while excelling in a new position.
"It is a very, very tricky situation that players face right now," Klinsmann told ESPN in January, referring to those that have come to MLS. "It makes the challenge bigger because you want the best players on your team playing on the best teams in world, which is in Europe.”
Despite Cameron’s extensive game time in the world’s toughest league, his status in the US team’s starting lineup at this summer’s World Cup is, for whatever reason, uncertain.
Part of the issue is that since turning pro in 2008, Cameron has rarely been given the opportunity to hold down a single position for an extended period of time. Between the four years he spent with the Houston Dynamo and his two seasons at current club Stoke City, Cameron has played nearly every position except goalkeeper.
How many players in the Premier League – or any professional league – can say that they’ve played right, left and center back, while also playing center midfield, right midfield, and even as a false nine behind the striker?
Yet, there is a perception that Cameron might be a victim of his versatility – that he may be a jack-of-all-trades. But is he a master of none?
“Playing different positions has had its ups and downs for sure,” Cameron said. “Last year, I’d play four or five games in midfield, play well in the role, and even was man of the match a couple of times. Then I’d be put to right back because that’s where the team needed me.
“People will say, ‘He’s not a right back,’ or, ‘He’s not a center back,’” Cameron continued. “I can play all these different positions, but until recently have never had the opportunity to play a single position. There are definitely benefits to being able to play lots of positions, but it was tough because I had never been able to focus on one.”
Cameron’s ability to play in both defense and midfield is a manager’s dream – and at a tournament like the World Cup, he becomes an invaluable option in a tight spot. Take, for instance, his sparkling performance filling in for Jermaine Jones as Michael Bradley’s center midfield partner in the 2-0 qualifying victory against Panama in Seattle last June, highlighted by an outside of the boot diagonal-ball assist over the top of the defense to Eddie Johnson.
"We asked him to win a lot of balls back, cover the two center backs and have a strong, strong presence in there,” Klinsmann said in his press conference after that game. “I don't know how many balls he recovered; he was constantly there. We said once you get that ball, then just keep it simple, find Michael Bradley, find Clint [Dempsey], find the players around him and cover our two center backs. It was a huge performance by Cameron.”
The US basically have two games to get it right at the World Cup – their opener against Ghana, and their second match against Portugal six days later. Lose them both, and their tournament might as well be over. Klinsmann needs immediate results, and one would think a player of Cameron’s experience, playing against the best players in the world, has to be utilized.
The 6-foot-3 Cameron has strength, size and ability to read the game, which makes him an ideal central defender. Combined with his technique, vision, and fitness, and Cameron has all the attributes of a box-to-box midfielder who can clog passing lanes and spring counter attacks.
“I’d probably prefer to play either that holding midfield role or center back, hands down,” Cameron admitted. “Especially that midfield role because of my ability to get forward and my energy.”
What compounds the debate, however, is that Cameron has started 27 of Stoke’s 28 matches this season at right back, and surely that position is his best chance at a starting spot in the USA’s World Cup opener vs. Ghana in Natal.
While his main competition at that position, Seattle’s Brad Evans, has done well in the role as of late for the national team, Evans is a midfielder playing out of position. He has the ability to get into the attack and play crosses from wide spaces, but Cameron does too.
Defensively though, when the most explosive wide players in the world are surging down the wing, who does Klinsmann want playing right back? Someone who has limited experience playing the position – like Evans – or someone who has shut down Chelsea FC superstar Eden Hazard for 90 minutes, 66 of which came after receiving a yellow card?
Cameron’s transition to right back hasn’t been completely seamless, however. While today he appears to be at home on the outside, he certainly didn't look that way in some of the early qualifiers in the Hexagonal this time last year.
“It was difficult because I didn't really know the position,” Cameron said. “This year I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable playing right back because of the repetition.
“In preseason the gaffer [Stoke manager Mark Hughes] told me he knows I can play center back and center midfield and that I was going to get a fair shot at center back, but we didn't have a right back, so he asked me to play there.
“What has really helped is that we play a style of play that allows me to walk out of a game with 70 touches. Last year [under previous coach Tony Pulis] it was more like 10-15. That's a huge difference, and helped me get a lot more comfortable.”
Klinsmann and his coaching staff have only two friendlies, including Wednesday’s against Ukraine in Cyprus (2 pm ET, ESPN2/UniMas), to help inform this summer’s roster. He‘s said that players’ performances with their club teams will be instrumental in that process.
“Our main job as coaches is to observe the players on their club teams…week in, week out,” Klinsmann said in the ESPN interview. “Hopefully they pick up the pace, pick up the tempo and prove to everyone that they deserve a chance to go to World Cup.”
Where Cameron plays against Ukraine could indicate the role Klinsmann sees him playing this summer. Considering the relative inexperience of the other defenders named in Wednesday’s squad, will Cameron play center back to provide stability – or right back, because that's where he has been playing for Stoke and that’s where Klinsmann sees him playing for the US?
Cameron has been a versatile player up to this point in his career. But perhaps its time for him to become the USMNT's long-term solution at right back.
Or at least at this summer’s World Cup.