A look at the current and future fullback options for the USMNT
May 13, 2020
GOING BACK OVER the last two decades, whenever the United States national team has notched big wins or played well over a long stretch, the fullback position tends to be a point of strength. It’s not just one or two players, but rather there is also important depth.
At the 2002 World Cup, Tony Sanneh played the best soccer of his career at right back and Frankie Hedjuk rose to the occasion playing left back – a position he never played before.
During the top years for Bob Bradley in 2009 and 2010, Jonathan Spector was splendid at the Confederations Cup at right back and Steve Cherundolo was instrumental at the World Cup. At left back, Bradley tended to favor Carlos Bocanegra in big games and while he didn’t get forward too often, he was a rock defensively.
Jurgen Klinsmann struggled manning the fullback positions after the retirement of Steve Cherundolo but it seemed to come together for him ahead of the 2014 World Cup. Fabian Johnson was terrific on the right side (where he was typically used on the left) and when he went down with an injury, DeAndre Yedlin filled in effectively. Then the ageless DaMarcus Beasley, a winger through almost all of his career, got the job done at left back.
The years following the 2014 World Cup were a difficult period for the U.S team at fullback. DeAndre Yedlin was frequently injured. Timothy Chandler never translated his club performances to the international game. Eric Lichaj and Edgar Castillo were never in favor. Greg Garza couldn’t stay healthy. Options like Graham Zusi, Brek Shea, Michael Orozco played out of position at fullback and were not good fits.
The good news is that since the World Cup qualifying failure in 2017, things have gradually been trending in a positive direction in the fullback position. Legitimate prospects are breaking through from the youth levels and into first team soccer. Those are big steps but the job is far from complete into having a steady depth pool of dependable, professionally experienced options.
As of the summer of 2020, here is where things stand.
Current USMNT options
DeAndre Yedlin: One of the most experienced American players and one of the few veterans in the pool who is still in his 20s and has played in a World Cup. When you combine that with 7012 Premier League minutes, 7348 minutes combined between the English Championship and MLS, and 62 national team caps. The problem for Yedlin, however, is that the past season at Newcastle has been more difficult and minutes have been erratic and less consistent. At a time when younger options are emerging but still early in their careers, Yedlin has hit a tough spot. As those younger players progress in their careers, they could be more ready to overtake Yedlin if Yedlin does not begin to play regularly again.
Sergino Dest: One of the top American prospects has burst into Ajax’s first team, played 1444 Eredivisie minutes, made eight Champions League appearance, and two Europa League appearances. At times he’s been brilliant against great competition. But in February he struggled in the month leading up to the Eredivisie’s termination. His defense on a consistent basis still needs to improve quite a bit. There are rumors of Bayern Munich and Tottenham being interested but those teams are betting on Dest’s upside. That makes sense because he’s shown so much promise but it’s not a reflection of where he’s at right now. It remains to be seen if he is consistent enough defensively to play in the hexagonal and road World Cup qualifiers.
Then of course there is the issue of Dest playing left back as well – which is a very real possibility.
Reggie Cannon: The FC Dallas mainstay is now entering his third year as a starter for the club and last year was huge for him. Unlike many young players who impress in their first season and then can’t meet the expectations in their second season, Cannon showed growth in his second season. That also coincided with his national team rise. When everyone is healthy, he is likely a backup to a Yedlin at RB and Dest at LB pairing. Offensively, he’s decent but he’s athletic and can stretch defenses. He’s also very good defensively and that could push him into the starting lineup for Berhalter in certain situations.
Tyler Adams: Tyler Adams is one of the best American players and has played once at right back for the U.S. team and has been there this season occasionally with RB Leipzig in 2020. Berhalter recently said he sees Adams as a midfielder and it makes sense. At the time he played there for the U.S. team at right back, Dest had yet to emerge and Cannon was still at an earlier stage in his career. So much has changed over the last 14 months so it is hard to see Adams playing there much in the future. But it remains to be seen if he will continue to play there for Leipzig.
Nick Lima: When Berhalter took over in 2019, Lima looked to be in good standing. To be fair, he played well when given the chance but has clearly fallen behind others the past year. He’s not out of the mix and he’s not old but when soccer resumes, he’ll need to play well.
The U.S. U-23 team has seen its cycle extended another year due to COVID-19 and fortunately, that pool is also strong at fullback and this will only provide competition among the U.S. national team player pool in the years ahead. While Dest and Cannon are U-23 eligible, they are more full national team options right now.
Aaron Herrera: The Real Salt Lake fullback has emerged into a quietly competent option who plays mostly right back but who can also play left back. He flies under the radar but is a pretty steady and reliable player right now. In the years ahead, it will be up to him to become more dynamic moving forward.
Kyle Duncan: Last fall, Duncan showed he was completely beyond the ACL tear he suffered in 2018. That likely gave the Red Bulls the confidence to clear the way for Duncan to be a starter for the club. In the first two games of 2020, Duncan was first-rate for the Red Bulls and he showed a lot potential at the position. He is a player who has the potential to leapfrog other players quickly.
Julian Araujo: Likely the starter for the U.S. U-20 team, Araujo showed a lot of potential last year with the LA Galaxy. That success saw him called up to the U.S. U-20 World Cup team, the U.S. U-23 team for camps, and the full national team for January camp. He has potential and it is worth keeping him on the list. For now he needs to seize the opportunity with the Galaxy and the U.S. U-20 team.
Ian Hoffmann: Another talented U.S U-20 option who is based at Karlsruher in Germany, Hoffmann has played right back for club and country. But with Hoffemann, he is also playing midfield too so it is tough to gauge his position.
Joe Scally: The New York City FC product was previously with the U.S. U-17 team last year and will join Borussia Monchengladbach next year after this year with NYCFC.
Full national team options
Sergino Dest: The Ajax fullback could very well play on the left side for the time being for the U.S. team but that remains to be seen once the national team returns to action. He has played there before with Ajax although his left foot is not nearly as strong as his right.
Tim Ream: The Fulham central defender has played both central defense and left back for Berhalter and he plays the left back position similar to the way former captain Carlos Bocanegra did for the U.S. team. He won’t get forward much but is strong defensively and can play the ball well from a deep position. He’s limited but competent defensively – and that is not a bad option for the time being. Even at 32, he is aging well.
Antonee Robinson: The Wigan left back nearly completed a transfer to AC Milan over the winter but the detection of an irregular heartbeat during his medical exam in Italy caused the transfer to fall through. Assuming he makes a full recovery, he should feature for the U.S. again. He’s eligible for the U.S. U-23 team, although release issues will be difficult. But he is a speedy left back who, at 22 years old, now has 7342 minutes of Championship experience (all during relegation battles) and has played once for the team under Berhalter. Historically, left back has been a tough position for the U.S. team to fill and that continues to this day. A healthy Robinson should eventually get more opportunities.
Daniel Lovitz: The Lovitz inclusion in the team puzzled a lot of U.S. fans but the fact he was not called up to January camp along with the continued emergence of other options might see his stock fall.
Chris Gloster: The New Jersey native was part of the 2019 U-20 where he played well. He has also done well for the U-23 team when called up. Breaking into the full national team will probably require first team minutes at the club level. He was a starter for PSV II this year but that team was poor in the second tier of Holland. Will he make more inroads there next season?
Sam Vines: The Colorado Rapids left back had a solid game for the full national team against Costa Rica at the conclusion of January camp. He also looked decent as the Rapids won their first two games of the 2020 season. He was doing so well that Colorado refused to release him to the U-23 team for Olympic qualifying. He was trending up just prior to the shutdown and last season was positive for him as a starter. It remains to be seen how high his ceiling is but his floor is respectable at this point.
The United States U-20 team actually has several decent options at the position and it will be interesting to see which player assumes the starting role under head coach Anthony Hudson.
Leon Flach: The St. Pauli mainstay is a good left back and a good central midfielder. It remains to be seen which position he settles into but left back is certainly a possibility.
Kobe Hernandez-Foster: The former U.S. U-17 player is likely heading to Wolfsburg this season where he will attempt to work his way up the Bundesliga club’s ladder.
George Bello: The Atlanta United homegrown player was considered a top prospect but struggled with injuries throughout 2019. Should the 2020 season begin in some fashion, it will be important regain the momentum he once had.
Travian Sousa: The Hamburg left back is yet to make inroads into the first team at his club although his manager has spoken highly of him and his progress.