6713_isi_defense_usmntro052913-0506_(1) Rick Osentoski/isiphotos.com
Roster Analysis

The American Back Line: How Did This Happen?

Brad Evans at right back? DaMarcus Beasley at left back? And two largely untested central defenders in front of Tim Howard? In a World Cup qualifier? Probably, yes. Jon Arnold looks at how it happened.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
June 07, 2013
1:40 PM
Thumbing through ASN readers’ Starting XIs, several trends quickly emerge. The most notable for me is the near-consensus agreement that DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans will line up as the starting outside backs Friday night in the office.

That’s not a particularly surprising choice. Beasley has been adequate if not excellent since he started at left back against Costa Rica and reprised that role in a scoreless draw against Mexico. Evans’ versatility is well-chronicled and his time at right back was, like Beasley’s on the opposite side, something that couldn’t be construed as a strength but also didn’t take the form of a glaring weakness.

And that’s fine, but how did this happen? As one reader commented on ASN contributor Brian Sciaretta’s Starting XI, “I wish I could go back in time two years, present my younger self this roster, and say that in 2013 the USA's best lineup is this.”

In fall of 2012, the American back line had finally found consistency. The group wasn’t glamorous, but it wasn’t too tough to envision Fabian Johnson at left back, Carlos Bocanegra and Geoff Cameron in the center, and Steve Cherundolo on the right patrolling the field of the Maracana in 2014.

Then the injuries came.

Fabian Johnson was first, so Bocanegra moved to fullback and Clarence Goodson played at center back against Antigua and Barbuda. It didn’t work very well, so four days later against Guatemala, Klinsmann moved Bocanegra back centrally and put Michael Parkhurst at left back. The right-footed Parkhurst never looked comfortable on the other side and Bocanegra–who scored in the match –took the heat for an early Carlos Ruiz goal and didn’t work well with Cameron. You remember....

The back line would really never be the same again. Bocanegra and Cameron partnered alongside Johnson on the left and Timmy Chandler on the right in a 2-2 friendly draw against Russia. But then Klinsmann dropped the bomb and left Bocanegra, the long-time captain and team leader, off the team heading into the Hex. Cherundolo would miss as well because of injury.

The future is now, Klinsmann decided next. That meant a centerback pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron—though the latter was playing exclusively right back at Stoke—with the two German-Americans as the outside backs. Finally, the back four would have the opportunity to settle into a cohesive unit. Sink or swim, we had our guys.

Or did we?

Except that plan was wrecked again by a rash of injuries. Cherundolo remained out prior to the March pair of matches against Costa Rica and Mexico. Chandler was also unavailable, as was Johnson and Tijuana left back Edgar Castillo. Not getting games with his club team in Europe, Michael Parkhurst wasn’t called in and Klinsmann continued to leave Bocanegra at home. That meant a choice for the manager. The first was easy. He could use Clarence Goodson alongside Gonzalez and push Cameron out to the right back spot where he’d been playing with his club. That left a hole at right back to be filled by either a MLS fullback like Justin Morrow or Tony Beltran, or converting DaMarcus Beasley from a left midfielder into a left back.

In the blowing snow of Colorado, that patched-together unit held the Ticos scoreless, though a tip of the hat has to go toward the weather as well. To call it a dazzling display would be revisionist history. Cameron struggled on the right and the center backs were just decent. Beasley earned the highest marks of any defender from ASN readers. Beasley became the left back.

The future is now, the manager again decided heading into Mexico City. Sporting Kansas City center back Matt Besler had worked well with Gonzalez in a January friendly against Canada, and the MLS Defender of the Year was going to be working with Goodson for a lot longer. He was probably ahead of Goodson’s level anyway. So, against rival Mexico, in the storied Azteca Stadium, Besler got his first start. Once the nerves cleared away, Besler was excellent, as was Gonzalez. Beasley stumbled a bit, but it wasn’t like he’d be playing left back forever.

Except when Fabian Johnson returned from injury for these recent friendlies it looked like he’d be better suited on the wing. Chandler is still out with injuries, Bocanegra seems done with the first team, and Cherundolo is taking leave but may have seen his last competitive U.S. fixture as well. Edgar Castillo was still away at Copa Libertadores with his club. Beasley would ride at left back again. Sticking with the Besler-Gonzalez center pairing, which also could be in doubt after a handful of gaffes from the LA Galaxy man, the manager slotted late-addition Brad Evans in at right back. He held his own in a friendly win against Germany and brings us to where we are tonight.

Does it matter that two guys who are generally midfielders are half of the Americans’ starting back line? Or that a 26- and 24-year-old, both of whom haven’t played outside MLS, are the two starting center backs? Fans won’t care if they keep a clean sheet.

And going forward? It’s safe to say the back four against Jamaica won’t be the same quartet we see in Brazil, but who knows what it will look like?

Ultimately, I'd like to see Gonzalez and Besler own their spots and then find a pair of fullbacks who play that position regularly for their clubs. Edgar Castillo is one player who fits that description, but his cameo against Germany was uninspiring at best. On the right, hopes may still rest with the finally cap-tied Timmy Chandler. His Honduras performance is a distant memory–and that’s a good thing. If he ever gets integrated into the squad, it’s possible he’s the long-term answer. Or perhaps one of the aforementioned MLS fullbacks steps up and stakes a claim. It could happen.

Either way, Klinsmann’s focus has to be on Jamaica and the following matches now. Two converted midfielders and a couple young, domestic-based center backs might have to do.

How do you feel about the current U.S. back four? Who would you like to see starting back there in the first game of the 2014 World Cup?

Post a comment