Armchair Analyst: USMNT depth chart - Goalkeepers & Defenders

Ten months ago, the USMNT lost 2-1 in Trinidad & Tobago, a catastrophic end to the worst World Cup qualifying cycle since 1986. Nine months ago, I offered a "let's project out a bit" depth chart, with the stated intention of "identifying a core group that can win the 2019 Gold Cup, and then start 2022 World Cup qualifying on the right foot."

Now, it's less than a month from the first set of friendlies of the 2022 cycle – friendlies that are almost certain to be coached by interim manager Dave Sarachan, as there's as yet no official or announced progress on the hiring of a permanent head coach. This is as good a time as any to see how things have changed since last November, and try to figure out what the depth chart looks like for these upcoming friendlies, for the rest of 2018, and into the early stages of 2019.

Bear in mind that this is not a prediction of who's going to be on the 2022 World Cup team (we'll make it this time, I swear!), nor even who's going to be on the 2019 Gold Cup team or even who's going to be in Sarachan's roster next month. Rather, this is just me surveying the field and trying to figure out who's legitimately in the pool over the next six-ish months.


Goalkeepers

  1. Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC)
  2. Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)
  3. Tim Melia (Sporting KC)
  4. Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas)
  5. Alex Bono (Toronto FC)

Given how well he played against France and, generally, how good he's been since joining Crew SC, as well as his age and upside, Steffen looks like the No. 1 choice at the moment. He has been and remains an elite shot-stopper:

He's also grown in commanding his box, and given how organized the Crew SC defense is in front of him every week, chances are he's improved a bunch in directing and communicating with the guys in front of him. His feet are better than they have been, but remain a work in progress.

If these games in September were must-wins, Guzan might still be No. 1. If Melia were a few years younger, he might be No. 1. I wouldn't be shocked if either/both outplayed Steffen over the next 12 months and were starting at next summer's Gold Cup. But given the low stakes of these upcoming games, and the long run-up until the next games that really mean something, it makes more sense to start this cycle with the kid in net.

Gonzalez and Bono are two other guys in Steffen's age cohort who've mostly done well, though each has had some notable blemishes this year. They'll each continue to get plenty of looks.

More to keep an eye on:

  • Bill Hamid (D.C. United)
  • Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)

Hamid had a disastrous spell in Denmark and is past the age where we should expect significant improvement with regard to consistency and decision-making. But maybe it happens, and if it does he will absolutely figure prominently.

Horvath had and then lost a starting job last year, and is terrifyingly howler-prone, but still relatively young.

It's tough to see anybody else squeezing into the pool over the next 12 months.


Left Back

  1. Antonee Robinson (Wigan Athletic)
  2. Jorge Villafaña (Portland Timbers)
  3. Ben Sweat (New York City FC)
  4. Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire)

The 21-year-old Robinson, with a couple of strong showings to start the Championship season – along with a couple of strong showings with the USMNT in late spring – should probably be considered No. 1 on the depth chart here. In general the Championship isn't great for developing young players, but Robinson's going to get 30+ games this year, and that's better than a near-permanent spot on Everton's bench in the EPL (he's still under contract with the Liverpool club).

Villafana has returned to the Timbers in 2018 | USA Today Sports Images

Jorge Villafaña just returned to MLS and is a good bet to be a consistent two-way presence for his club. Sweat has been that and more first for Patrick Vieira, and now for Dome Torrent – who is a big fan:

Vincent's development has not gone smoothly in Chicago, but he has all the tools, is capable of playing as a center back in a back three or a fullback in a back four or as a wingback. He might never really break through and live up to his considerable potential, but I'll be surprised if he's not at a camp or two over the next six months.

More to keep an eye on:

If he could stay out of Mike Petke's doghouse and get on the field every single week, he'd probably be top two on this list. The 20-year-old has a lot of gifts – he's the best passer out of this group, and is a very good 1v1 defensive player.

Despite all that, he's spent most of the season losing minutes to players who aren't as good as him. I think it's fair to be concerned about that.

Garza would be in the top five if he wasn't injured. If he comes back healthy in January and plays as well as he had been playing, he'll get a few more looks. But it's a big "if" at this point.

There are a bunch of promising left backs from ages 16 to 19 (Marco Farfan, Portland; Matthew Real, Philadelphia; Aedan Stanley, St. Louis; Chris Gloster, Hannover; George Bello, Atlanta), though none is really on a track where you could see them figuring over the next 12 months.

Center Back

  1. John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
  2. Matt Miazga (Nantes)
  3. Tim Parker (New York Red Bulls)
  4. Tim Ream (Fulham)
  5. Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
  6. Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham Hotspur)
  7. Matt Besler (Sporting KC)

Miazga didn't play in Week 1 of Ligue 1 action, but I expect him to pretty quickly work his way into the lineup. He and Brooks are an obvious pairing to work together at CB for, hopefully, the duration of this cycle, provided they both stay healthy. It would be nice to see a CB pair given reps together and allowed to build actual chemistry, something largely missing since 2011.

Tim Parker could be part of a Red Bulls tandem at CB | USA Today Sports Images

Parker and Long have exactly that, and both should feature a bunch over the next few years. Ream's timeline is shorter, and he's never, ever been particularly good for the US, but his passing ability makes him a specialist who could be situationally useful. Besler is similar in a lot of ways (bear in mind he's had many, many more good performances than Ream), but he's pretty clearly lost a step.

Carter-Vickers didn't make the 18 for Spurs and was very poor for the US in the latest batch of friendlies. At this point in his career, he cannot pass the ball. But he'll keep getting call-ups.

More to keep an eye on:

Palmer-Brown didn't play for NAC Breda in their opener, which is probably a good thing: They got demolished 5-0 by AZ Alkmaar. Hopefully that opens the door for some backline changes, and hopefully that opens the door for EPB to have a Miazga-like career arc in the Netherlands.

For the rest of the guys on this list, it feels like it's just too early, as all four of them need to add strength, focus and a bit of tactical nous.

That said, if Richards gets minutes for Bayern by Christmas – which he said is the plan – he will rocket up the charts here. The kid's feet and distribution are superb, and he checks every box with regard to physical attributes.

Walker Zimmerman (LAFC), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United) and Matt Hedges (FC Dallas) have all had their chances, and are no longer young. Omar Gonzalez (Atlas) and Ventura Alvarado (Necaxa) are both starting in Liga MX, but each is too far down the depth chart to really factor at this point.

Right Back

  1. DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
  2. Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas)
  3. Keegan Rosenberry (Philadelphia Union)
  4. Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)
  5. Shaq Moore (CF Reus Deportiu)
  6. Eric Lichaj (Hull City)

Yedlin dodged a major bullet this week when Newcastle announced he was set to return to training after suffering what initially looked to be a serious knee injury on MatchDay 1 of the EPL season.

Even if things had been more serious, there's a bunch of young (or young-ish) right backs coming through the ranks and playing well. Cannon, who just turned 20, has quietly been the most consistent of them, though he is capable of being very loud when he pushes into the attack:

(note to directors out there: PLEASE just keep it on Camera 1)

Rosenberry and Lima have both been much more good than bad this year, and both are very good passers of the ball. Rosenberry in particular has a lot of responsibility for Philly in terms of picking the right pass to initiate attacks, and he handles the burden very well. It's a different sort of role.

Moore has been loaned to a bad Segunda Division team with the hope that he can refine his first touch and passing. If he does, he'll factor prominently. Even if he doesn't, he'll continue to get looks.

Lichaj is the "break in case of emergency" veteran.

More to keep an eye on:

Given his skillset and how well he played at RB last year, Polster would be near the top of the above list if he'd been healthy in 2018. But he hasn't been – he's played a grand total of 89 minutes, and it remains to be seen when he comes back, and what form he's in.

Lennon looks very promising as a pure attacking RB converted from the wing, though it's probably too early for both him and Lindsey, who's had a bunch of very nice moments.

For what it's worth: If I was coaching the US in a must-win game next week, and Yedlin wasn't available, I'd have Tyler Adams (RBNY) as my RB. But he's played primarily as a d-mid this season, and there's no guarantee that whoever the next head coach is will share my view that he's a more influential player when playing out wide.

Up next: Part II - Midfielders

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