John Brooks is hurt again. ESPN FC reported on Tuesday that the USMNT defender suffered a "muscle tear in the hip region" in Hertha Berlin's 1-0 win over Wolfsburg on Saturday.
Hertha have been imprecise with the exact timeframe for his absence, saying that Brooks will be out of action "for the time being," I mean, that could be anything. Put enough Heinekens in me and I'll give you some Prince: "Time is a mind construct. It's not real."
For our purposes, though, time is very real, and muscle tears (especially in the hip) are unlikely to heal in four weeks. So it seems another Brooks-less set of World Cup qualifiers, first in early June against Trinidad & Tobago at home then on the road at Mexico, could be on tap for the USMNT.
This is clearly a blow to Bruce Arena's plans. But if Brooks is unavailable in June, here are five guys in descending order of likelihood to step in for him and start next to Geoff Cameron:
5. Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United)
Birnbaum is also hurt after missing last weekend's game with a concussion, and that obviously puts his potential participation up in the air. He's also had a less than great start to the 2017 MLS season even before the injury, which should cool expectations somewhat for the 26-year-old.
That doesn't mean he's fallen off the map entirely and it doesn't mean there's no chance of him being called in. We saw back in March what bad luck with injuries can do to the player pool, and there are zero guarantees the requisite key contributors will all stay in good health between now and then.
Birnbaum isn't exactly a fully blooded vet, but he's got 11 caps and has the requisite size, speed and strength to go up against T&T's Kenwyne Jones. He'll be on Bruce Arena's radar.
4. Tim Ream (Fulham)
Ream started at Panama and took a beating from US fans on social media and in the comments sections of this website and pretty much every other one for his trouble. He's a particularly bad match-up against Jones, and hope Arena feels the same way.
But guess what? With Ream in central defense, the US got the result they needed in Panama. That's not nothing.
It's also relevant that he's had a very good year, mostly at center back, for a Fulham team that's in very good form. They've won four straight and are now sixth place in the English Championship, which is the final spot in the promotion playoffs. He's got one goal on the year:
Ream's left-footed, like Brooks, and his distribution is generally excellent. His ability in possession could help against a Mexico team that has historically thrived off of turning the US over, and would be rather less useful against a T&T side who'll concede 60 percent or more of the ball no matter who the US puts on the backline.
That said, I'm not convinced he should start against either. The 29-year-old has 23 US caps, and has played nearly 23,000 professional minutes across MLS, the Championship and Premier League, so it's not like he'll be intimidated out there. But he's nonetheless had the yips in his "bigger" games for the US.
3. Matt Besler (Sporting KC)
In his way Besler is probably the most obvious replacement, and my guess is he'll start one of the two games if Brooks is indeed ruled out. He's a World Cup veteran and has been battered, bruised and bloodied across the length and breadth of CONCACAF for the last five years, picking up 39 caps in the process.
The 30-year-old is also the vocal, organizing force of this decade's best MLS defense: The wrecking crew that are Sporting KC. That includes this season's squad, which have conceded just three times in seven games, and only once from open play. Besler's at the heart of all of that, and – bonus points – like Ream he's a natural left-footer whose preferred position is left center back. He's not quite as slick on the ball as Ream is, but his distribution is just as good.
I'm given pause for two reasons here. First is that Besler hasn't been part of either of Arena's first two camps, back in January (because of injury) or in March (because Arena preferred in-season Euros, by-and-large, over early-season MLSers). Second is that Besler is not a great physical match-up for Jones.
That isn't to say Besler can't compete against big and strong target forwards – he can and has done quite often for club and country. It's just not exactly his wheelhouse.
2. Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
The above is very, very much in Walker Zimmerman's wheelhouse. The 23-year-old is the most impressive blend of size, speed, quickness and strength in the US backline pool other than Brooks himself (and some would argue that particular battle is neck-and-neck).
He has the ability to make up for the mistakes of others, and while he – and FC Dallas – struggled last year without veteran and MLS Defender of the Year Matt Hedges* to organize things, that'll be less of a concern with the US as long as Cameron and d-mid Michael Bradley are around. They'll do the organizing.
More about Hedges below
Zimmerman has but one cap, which is a concern. But Arena's shown an "if not now, when?" streak with regard to taking chances on untested players he likes in this second swing as US manager, and there are good reasons to think he likes Zimmerman quite a bit.
Dallas have conceded just three times in six games this season, by the way. And while they were a bit more easily breached in CCL play against Pachuca, neither FCD nor Zimmerman appeared overwhelmed, and that recent experience against one of Liga MX's better teams is probably a point in his favor.
Worth noting that the right-footed Zimmerman isn't a great distributor even when he's at his preferred RCB slot. That has to factor into the calculus on some level, even if it's not decisive.
1. Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca)
OK, yeah, it'll probably be Omar who gets the nod, mainly because of his experience. He's been through plenty of CONCACAF games, for both club and country, has handled high-pressure situations (see: World Cup 2014), and was instrumental in securing a point down in Panama. He’s also in form, helping guide Pachuca to the final of the CONCACAF Champions League.
There's nothing elegant or deceptive about Gonzalez's game. He's right-footed and not the same level of distributor as Brooks, Besler or Ream, which means the US backline could be a little bit lopsided. But Omar is physical enough to handle the likes of Jones and savvy enough to contend with Mexico’s attackers.
A Cameron-Gonzalez center back pairing may not be sexy, but the USMNT doesn't need "sexy" in June. They need points. And that pairing gives them the best chance to get them.
The Hedges Thing
I've seen, in certain quarters, arguments that Arena should just bring Hedges and Zimmerman to the next qualifiers and trot them out, since continuity is such a crucial component of successful soccer and can make up for so many other issues (like, presumably, a lack of familiarity with the international stage). I get that – it's a half-decent argument, and it's impossible to ignore just how good Hedges and Zimmerman have been together for the past two years in Dallas.
But I also think it doesn't take into account the fact that there is already legitimate continuity among US veterans like Cameron, Gonzalez and Besler, and that managing a locker room full of alpha males is a delicate thing. Teams have complicated chemistries, and bringing in a brand spanking new central defense for a must-win qualifier (that's exactly what T&T at home is) would likely have long-term consequences in terms of locker room trust, especially since starting Hedges/Zimmerman together would require benching either the best defender in the pool (Cameron) or the guy whose team just beat Hedges/Zimmerman (Gonzalez) in continental competition. And those guys wouldn't be benched based upon form, but upon a hunch or a good theory.
So that's not going to happen. Bruce Arena is not insane.
And then the next question becomes "Ok then, why not Hedges at all?" And this is the part where I explain that in a better world the 27-year-old Hedges has somewhere around 30 caps and is a battle-tested veteran of the international scene. But we don't live in that better world; we live in the world where Hedges has 18 international minutes that came in a friendly two-and-a-half years ago, and missed January camp because of injury, and wasn't in the March camp for qualifiers (Zimmerman was), and doesn't quite have the same physical up-side of Zimmerman or Birnbaum, and thus is (probably) behind the five guys above, and maybe even Jonathan Spector, too.
That doesn't mean we'll never see Hedges for the USMNT, and I'll say it straight up: I hope we get to see him and Zimmerman together in the Gold Cup this summer. I bet it'll work, and the Gold Cup has always been the perfect venue for that kind of experimentation. The players understand, at some level, that's what the Gold Cup is for.
Qualifiers, though? With a trip to the World Cup itself on the line?
That's just too big a risk to take.