Roster Battle: Predicting USMNT defenders Jurgen Klinsmann will bring to Brazil | Armchair Analyst
Welcome to the final part of my three-part series looking at the US national team player pool, with an eye toward who will get called into the 30-man camp set to be announced in a little more than a week, and who will make the final 23-man roster for the World Cup in Brazil.
For goalkeepers, stop kidding yourself and accept that it'll be Tim Howard, Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando unless one of them contracts leprosy between now and June.
Now for the defenders:
Central defense is a worry, pure and simple.
The incumbents at the moment appear to be Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, the former being the USMNT's most consistently good backline presence over the past 18 months and the latter leading the defense with eight World Cup qualifying starts.
At times they've been very, very good – the scoreless draw in Mexico being the best example of that. And it's worth noting that they have complementary, rather than overlapping skillsets: Gonzalez attacks the ball, while Besler plays passing lanes. It should work.
But it hasn't always. Gonzalez can be prone to ball-watching, and that is murderous against good teams:
Those reactions need to be quicker come summer, or it'll be a short trip.
Chance Besler makes the 23-man roster: 100 percent
Chance Gonzalez makes the 23-man roster: 100 percent
The most natural backup for Gonzalez is San Jose's 31-year-old veteran Clarence Goodson, who actually turns 32 before the tournament begins. Age is just a number, though, as Goodson is playing some of the best soccer of his career and is arguably in better form than Gonzalez.
Both players are great in the air, and huge weapons on attacking set pieces. Besler, for that matter, should also be mentioned as a restart threat – but for his throw-ins, not necessarily getting a head onto corner kicks or the like.
Chance Goodson makes the 23-man roster: 90 percent
I'm listing Geoff Cameron here even though he's just as likely – maybe even more likely – to get time at right back. And maybe even at midfield, too.
I honestly think that Cameron is the most gifted central defender in the pool, able to cover more ground than anyone else and capable of defense-splitting passes that are Beckenbauer-esque:
That's him using the outside of his boot to cut three Jamaican defenders out of the play on the sequence that led to the game-winning goal. Pretty sweet.
But because he's a regular at right back for Stoke City, Cameron hasn't gotten as much run in central defense for the US as expected. It's one of those situations where his versatility has been a bit of a handicap in nailing down a permanent role.
Chance Cameron makes the 23-man roster: 100 percent
There are three main guys in consideration for the fourth "true" center-back spot, or fifth spot overall if you want to count Cameron.
John Anthony Brooks, a giant German-American, is just 21 and got taken to school by Ukraine two months ago. He was spectacularly bad, and that – combined with indifferent club form at the time – seemed to seal his fate. Times have changed however, as he's just finished a very good April by earning a nod to the Bundesliga's Team of the Week.
Despite his size, he's not particularly good in the air. Think of him more as a ball-playing center back who wants to keep the game moving.
That, of course, describes Tim Ream to a tee. The one-time Red Bull was just voted Bolton's player of the year after initially struggling to fit into the rough and tumble world of English soccer. He split time between central defense and left back and, should he make the roster, would likely join Besler as one of two left-footed central defenders available.
Ream's left foot is described as "cultured" in England, which basically means he can really pass the hell out of the ball. Problem is that he can try to do too much, and the World Cup graveyard is littered with the corpses of central defenders who hit one too many careless passes.
Michael Orozco Fiscal probably grades out highest of the three here in terms of reliability, and despite his lack of size (generally listed most places at 5-foot-11), he's very good on attacking set pieces. That produced his best moment in Red, White and Blue – the game-winning goal in the Aztecazo, the US's 1-0 win over Mexico in Mexico City back in August of 2012.
He's only been "pretty good" for Puebla this year, so despite the fact that he's more experienced and has been more productive than the other guys in the hunt, it really feels like this race is wide open.
Chance Brooks makes the 23-man roster: 40 percent
Chance Ream makes the 23-man roster: 20 percent
Chance Orozco Fiscal makes the 23-man roster: 40 percent
The only other guys worth mentioning here who may get called into camp but are extreme long-shots to make the 23 are veteran Oguchi Onyewu and youngsters Shane O'Neill and Will Packwood. All three come in, according to my gut, at somewhere less than five percent.
Klinsmann has slowly but surely built up his fullback depth, and now has some serious decisions to make. It's quite possible that Brad Evans, who started five qualifiers and had one of the most underappreciated goals in program history, could be left out in the cold.
Evans and the guy he's in pretty obvious direct competition with – Michael Parkhurst of the Columbus Crew – both offer similar pluses and minuses. Neither is a gifted athlete, and neither is going to get down the line and whip in crosses. Neither has the make-up speed to cancel out a mistake should somebody cough the ball up to, oh I don't know, Cristiano Ronaldo or something.
But neither makes those mistakes himself. "Cleanliness" and "mistake-free backline play" are right next to "godliness," so let's not undersell the value of reliability here.
The way that reliability best expresses itself in possession. Both Evans and Parkhurst have a knack for pushing up just high enough an becoming an auxiliary central midfielder, which is key for a US team that will likely only play with two true central midfielders but doesn't want to concede the possession battle entirely. It's not sexy, but it's effective.
Here's the thing, though: As I mentioned before, Cameron plays right back primarily at his club, and is as much of a factor on this depth chart as he is on the central defense depth chart. Given that, I think ony one of Evans or Parkhurst can make it.
Chance Evans makes the 23-man roster: 50 percent
Chance Parkhurst makes the 23-man roster: 50 percent
Fabian Johnson is who I'd put my money on to start at right back from the first kick for the US because he is the most skillful, dynamic attacking option. He can do the safe stuff Evans and Parkhurst excel at, but can also overlap all the way to the endline and scorch teams that don't keep up.
This is from when he was playing left midfield last summer, but it does a pretty good job of showing Johnson's attacking instincts:
A few concerns, though. First and foremost is that the US will be facing a glut of left-sided inverted wingers in the group stage, starting with Ghana's Wakaso Mubarak before continuing onto Ronaldo and probably finishing with André Schürrle. The last thing Klinsmann will want to do is give any of those guys room, and if Johnson is overlapping from right back all day, they will find some.
Second is that the US have been best in this cycle when DaMarcus Beasley has license to push up from his left-back spot. Starting an overlapping right back doesn't automatically mean that Beasley will be tethered, but it will call for a level of coordination that it's hard to imagine discovering in the brief time this camp allows.
And third is that Johnson has wilted for the US any time he's played in heat. And I'm not talking "mid-afternoon game in Houston" heat – I'm talking anything hotter than 65 degrees.
Of course, that's what subs are for. Heat or no, Johnson is the most talented person on this list and a lock for the final roster.
Chance Johnson makes the 23-man roster: 100 percent
Real Salt Lake's Tony Beltran has been Mr. Reliable for his club since before MLS even started, it seems like. He's not an overwhelming athlete by any stretch, but he plays the position like he was born there and can do many of the same "possession through intelligence" things that Evans and Parkhurst do so well.
And he can get forward to put in a very nice cross should the opportunity present itself:
Chance he makes the 23-man roster: 15 percent
There are two more guys to consider in the pool at right back: Seattle Sounders Homegrown DeAndre Yedlin and FC Nürnberg veteran Timothy Chandler. Both are blazingly fast, possessed of the kind of athleticism that can help put out fires all over the field, but especially in transition.
Nonetheless, neither has a particularly good shot at making the trip to Brazil. Yedlin is still working out the finer points of when to stay and when to go, and though his passing has improved he's still not as crisp as he needs to be.
Chandler is much more polished, and on talent alone would almost certainly have a seat. But he repeatedly turned down call-ups during the depths of qualifying, and it's hard to imagine any locker room welcoming a player who's shown such a lack of commitment. It honestly wouldn't be shocking if Chandler didn't even make the 30-man camp.
Chance Yedlin makes the 23-man roster: 5 percent
Chance Chandler makes the 23-man roster: 5 percent
In Klinsmann's system, the left back has been used to provide both width and verticality in the attack, often turning the 4-4-2 into what looks like a 3-5-2 or even – at times – a 3-6-1.
Beasley is probably going to be the starter here, since his attacking instincts are great, his defensive instincts are very underrated, and he remains smart as hell. It's particularly intriguing to imagine what he and Landon Donovan could do together on the same side of the field, and if that could tilt the game in the US's favor.
Johnson is most likely going to be No. 2 on the depth chart at this spot, for the same reasons that he's No. 1 at right back. He's naturally right-footed, but as you can see from that cross above, using his left hardly seems to bother him.
Also remember that Ream, if he makes it, provides depth at this spot.
Chance Beasley makes the 23-man roster: 100 percent
The last guy to look at for this spot is Edgar Castillo of Club Tijuana. Castillo gets forward as often as possible, which can be fantastic against overwhelmed opponents but deadly against anyone who sits in the channel and plays to pick off the first pass in the 1-2. That always means a counter in the other direction, and if Honduras can play for it then you know Ghana, Portugal and Germany can as well.
Castillo's best hope is that Klinsmann decides Johnson is a right back only, and that there has to be a true, left-footed backup to Beasley available for selection. Even then, this feels like a reach.
Chance Castillo makes the 23-man roster: 10 percent
We'll find out how right (wrong) I was in less than two weeks. Klinsmann announced on Thursday that he'd be using the full 30-man camp, so a bunch of these guys on the fringe will get to play for the trip of a lifetime.
And after that? That's when the fun really begins.