Where are the young American centerbacks? A look at the ongoing development gap in the back
November 03, 2023
OVER THE PAST five years, most of American soccer on the men’s side has been trending positively with regards to player development. Many younger Americans have found their way into the top European leagues and the improvement of MLS, and its academies, has played a big role. But in recent years, the position of central defense has been lagging.
When you analyze the number of American central defenders from the 2001 birth year and younger, you come across very few players playing at solid professional levels. For the purposes of examining the depths of the problem, why it is the case, and the consequenses of the problem, we’ll define playing regularly in higher levels as:
- The “big five” in Europe: Premier League, Bundesliga, Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1
- The top divisions in Portugal, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, Scotland, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway, Argentina, or Brazil.
- Top second tiers: Championship, 2.Bundeslia, Serie B, or Ligue 2
- Perennial champions of smaller leagues such as Croatia, Greece, etc.
The players in this age group have either turned or will be turning 22 in 2023. While there are many reasons why players might receive minutes as teenagers – sometimes it is due to luck, injuries, a bond with a specific coach, or just a brief run of very good form – by this age, players should be on their way towards first team minutes.
But lately, you can see the minutes for American players in central defense don’t add up.
Central defense is a bit different than other positions. Central defenders can typically play until older ages and there isn’t as much rotation compared with other positions. Players are also a little older when they make breakthroughs.
To understand where things are with central defense development in the U.S., you must understand how things have been in the recent past.
Starting with the 1995 birth year, here is a list of American central defenders from the leagues listed above who have made at least five league appearances within the past year.
1995: Matt Miazga (FC Cincinnati), Wyatt Omsberg (Chicago Fire)
1996: Tristan Blackmon (Vancouver Whitecaps)
1997: Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Erik Palmer-Brown (Panathinaikos), Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake), Sean Nealis (New York Red Bulls), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire), Tanner Beason (San Jose Earthquakes), Nkosi Tafari (FC Dallas)
1998: Auston Trusty (Sheffield United), Donovan Pines (DC United), Henry Kessler (New England Revolution), Jackson Ragen (Seattle Sounders), Josh Bauer (Nashville SC), Robert Castellanos (Sporting Kansas City)
1999: Mark McKenzie (Genk), Sam Rogers (Lillestrom), Jack Maher (Nashville SC), Philip Quinton (Columbus Crew), Kendall Burks (Chicago Fire)
2000: Chris Richards (Crystal Palace), James Sands (NYCFC), Ethan Bartlow (Houston Dynamo), Ian Murphy (FC Cincinnati), Kipp Keller (Austin FC)
- The players in bold have been capped by the U.S. national team
There are several takeaways from this list.
Except for an off year like 1996, every year has produced a national team caliber player who is still in the player pool even excluding Pines, Kessler, and Rogers – who are likely not in the current pool anymore. Sands arguably could be, but his constant positional switching between defense and midfield makes him a different case.
Another important note is that this is just professional-level production. The quantity of pros is just as important as call-ups. The national team will always have to call up players, even if the pool is small and the talent is low. But having a large quantity of pros will typically produce a range of talent.
What is healthy about this list is that there is a decent number of overall professionals who fall into a normal bell-curve of talent with ranges from average, to good, to very good. Could it be better? Sure. But it reflects a desired range.
Even outside of the top players, you have good players like Justen Glad, Jackson Ragen, or Sam Rogers who are valuable at the club level but aren’t in the national team picture. They’re not being replaced simply by foreign options at their clubs. Internationally, they still raise the standard level of the national team pool, even if they’re not in the picture. A national team program isn't just limited to a few guys at the top but rather, it is also the healthy system beneath them that also produces solid professionals.
Youth National team indicators
Another indicator during these years was that the youth national teams were strong in central defense during these years. Particularly when looking at the U.S. U-20 World Cup rosters from these birth years (1995-2000), U.S. Soccer and Tab Ramos (who coached all three of these teams) did a great job of identifying most of the right players at the time who would have a USMNT future.
2015 U-20 World Cup team: Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Conor Donovan
2017 U-20 World Cup team: Erik Palmer-Brown, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Justen Glad, Auston Trusty, Tommy Redding
2019 U-20 World Cup team: Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, Aboubacar Keita
Youth national teams aren’t a completely accurate barometer of the future, but it’s still one important metric.
But a key takeaway is that many of the players on this list were already established first team professionals by the time of the U-20 World Cup. Flash forward to today, that's no longer the case.
The current central defense landscape
But now, starting with the 2001 birth year and working to younger groups, we are starting to see declining trends in central defense.
For one, the number of American central defenders from the 2001 birth year and younger who have played more than five games this year in the leagues outlined above are as follows:
- George Campbell (Montreal CF, 2001)
- Maximillian Dietz (Greuther Furth, 2002)
- Jalen Neal (LA Galaxy, 2003)
That’s it. Just three American central defenders born 2001 and younger are playing regularly at a high professional level. There isn’t a normal bell curve of talent developing, from which you’ll get your high end players, your solid players, your average players, etc.
This is still a young age range compared with the earlier list, but when leveling it out, it still falls short. By the year of their 22nd birthday, players like Miazga, Richards, McKenzie, Carter-Vickers, and Palmer-Brown were all multiyear starters and had already secured transfers. Glad was already a top MLS central defender. Auston Trusty had started extensively for Philadelphia before his trade to Colorado and his subsequent move to Arsenal.
Now in 2023, there are no U-23 American central defenders who have come close any of these accomplishments.
The youth national team barometer in this case is a little tricky because the 2021 U-20 World Cup cycle was cancelled due to COVID. But even in hindsight, it would have been tough for head coach Anthony Hudson to have been able to identify his players.
Jonathan Tomkinson was seen as a top option at the time, but his club, Norwich, has sent him on two separate and unconvincing loans to fourth-tier League Two teams. Nico Carrera was also seen as a top option at the time but he struggled at Holstein Kiel in the 2.Bundesliga and is now on loan in the 3.Liga. Campbell and Dietz would have been the top pairing based on what we now know over two years removed from the cancelled World Cup, but by the time the 2021 World Cup would have taken place, Campbell had just 46 MLS minutes under his belt while Dietz had yet to play at a higher level than Freiburg’s U-19 and reserve team.
There were no “can’t miss” players at any point during that cycle for Hudson. There were no established pros. But most importantly, since then, no one else has clearly emerged from the 2001 or 2002 birth years. Even as Campbell and Dietz are now at least playing, neither are on high level trajectory as we've seen with other top U-23 American central defenders in years past.
The 2023 U-20 cycle was similarly tough. Jalen Neal was properly identified as being the top central defender among the 2003-2004 birth years, but he wasn’t released by the Galaxy to play in the World Cup. Instead, head coach Mikey Varas rounded out his squad with Marcus Ferkranus, Brandan Craig, Justin Che, and Josh Wyndner.
Nearly four months since the conclusion of the U-20 World Cup, none of these players have played central defense at a high level. Fekranus and Craig are still either on the bench or reserves in MLS (Craig was loaned to Austin but did not play), and Che has seemingly made a permanent positional switch from central defense to right back (where he plays in the Dutch second tier) and it has been years since he was considered a central defender. Wynder is talented but his inclusion playing up a cycle reflected poorly on the existing options of that age group.
What this all means is that the numbers seem unlikely to change much. Yes, we could see a potential late bloomer like Miles Robinson who didn’t make his MLS debut until he was 21, but he was still identified by U.S. Soccer as a teenager and was one of the final cuts for the 2017 U-20 World Cup team. Tim Ream played four years in college but did so at a different era when his professional opportunities domestically were more limited.
For the most part, the 2001 and 2002 birth years are mostly known. The 2003 and 2004 birth years could see players emerge from college, MLS Next levels, or the USL, but national team scouting during their now closed U-20 class didn’t identify anyone considered a top prospect as they have in the past. It is not too late for these birth years, but someone will need to emerge soon.
Looking further into the future, the Wynder looks like an interesting prospect out of the 2005-born class. He has since transferred to Benfica where he’s on their top youth team and he should be part of the U.S. U-20 or even U-23 team in the coming year. There is also Noah Cobb who is also born in 2005. He made three appearances for Atlanta United in 2023, which is promising.
Last month, U.S. Soccer was dealt a serious blow when top 2005-born centerback prospect Tyler Bindon announced he will play for New Zealand instead of continuing with the U.S. youth system. Given the last few years, U.S. Soccer can ill afford to lose central defense prospects, let alone top ones. Previously they seemed to lose Inter Miami’s 2001-born centerback Ian Fray to Jamaica, but Fray’s multiple ACL tears have jeopardized his future.
Why the gap exists
Few would argue that there is currently a shortage or dry spell of young American central defenders right now compared with previous generations.
But there is a range of opinions as to why this exists.
Omid Namazi has served as head coach of the U.S. U-18 national team from 2016-2018 and the assistant coach of the U.S. U-20 team for the U-20 World Cups in 2015, 2017, and 2019. Most recently he was the coach of the Hartford Athletic. During his time working with U.S. youth teams, he was coaching the 2001-2002 birth years which was essentially the start of gap.
He believes players who have the ideal skillsets of central defenders need to be identified earlier.
“I definitely think there is a gap in central defense,” Namazi said. “I recall when I started with the 01’s, the shortage of quality centerbacks was to the point where I tried to convert Owen Otasowie, who was a midfielder all through his youth career at the Wolves into a center back. And it actually paid some dividends for us but also for him at the club level. I’m pretty sure he got his Wolves first team debut as a center back.”
“I believe the problem is rooted in the fact that we fail to identify players that have the qualities to play the position at a very early age, 11-13 years old,” he added. “We train everyone the same, whereas we need to start at an early age and create a different development path for each player. Of course, we want the player to experiment playing all the positions, but we also need to pick up on cues when a player shows strength and ability to play a certain position, especially the center back position.
“A player who has good athletic qualities, who may be a little taller than the rest, who shows courage in winning aerial duals,” Namazi concluded. “A player who can not only execute short passes but shows the ability to hit those longer-range passes with accuracy. If we can identify those kids and really develop those key qualities that are needed to play the position, then we might be on to something.”
Matt Doyle, an analyst for MLS Soccer, is not as alarmed by the gap and believes that most of the current gap exists because of the changing demands of the positions generally leads to center backs maturing even later than they have in the past.
“Center backs tend to develop later, and that's become especially true in the modern game as center backs has become the hardest position on the pitch to play,” Doyle explained. “You have to read the game in front of you while always being aware of the space behind you, and big/strong enough to battle with hulking center forwards but quick and fast enough to handle inverted wingers, and oh yeah those runs you're dealing with now come from different angles because of inverted wingers, and positional play, and free No. 8’s, and underlapping fullbacks, and.. it's a lot.”
“There's a natural winnowing process because of the complexity of the position,” Doyle added. “There just aren't that many guys who check all those boxes as young players, and I think it's harder to project high-level CBs based upon youth play than it is at any other spot except maybe goalkeeper.”
“Now we add in the fact that the '99s to the '06s missed crucial developmental years because of Covid, and it suddenly kind of makes sense that there's this lack of super-young options, or a sudden blossoming of guys in their mid-20s like Jackson Ragen and Nkosi Tafari… One thing to get used to with that is there will still be USMNT CB and GK prospects who come through college, and I don't think that will be the case at virtually any other position, save for the occasional Duncan McGuire. Tim Ream, remember, was a four-year player, and Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson played a couple of years, and Mark McKenzie went to Wake for a year.”
Tony Meola is a veteran of three U.S. World Cup teams (including as the starting goalkeeper in 1990 and 1994) and now serves as an MLS analysist for Apple TV. He also has been involved with U.S. Soccer as a member of the coaching staff for various youth national teams.
Meola takes the view that this is a cyclical matter, but the problem is exacerbated by roster changes in MLS that allow more foreign players to be imported. He believes that when there were more roster restrictions, the priority was to important attacking players. But as roster mechanisms have expanded, it has now led to MLS general managers being able to now import central defenders.
“I personally think these things are cyclical, but I wonder how much easing restrictions on bringing players to MLS will affect playing time for young players in general,” Meola said. “The more they ease up the rules the more they will start bringing in foreign players at important positions. They've done it for the last five-six years for goalkeepers. Now we're seeing it at central defense and fullback positions. I don't see it getting any better in that regard for young American players.”
“It's not a philosophical change. It just more mechanisms to bring in foreign players. You can only bring in so many attacking players. Then it’s been goalkeepers. Now it's central defenders.”
Former U.S. national team World Cup midfielder Tab Ramos coached the U.S. U-20 national team for four cycles and his last three teams advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals. After that, he took a head coaching job with the Houston Dynamo from 2019-2021 followed by the Hartford Athletic in USL. He is now an assistant coach for the New England Revolution.
He is quick to point out that MLS is a much tougher place to play now compared with just a few years ago when he was coaching the Houston Dynamo. He recalls there were periods when he coached the U-20 team and it wasn’t easy to fill central defense. Even in 2015, when the position was strong point for the U.S. team, he needed to have two players in Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers play up a cycle just to supplement Matt Miazga, who was one of the team’s best players.
“I remember when I was coaching, I was scouting USL heavily at places like the Bethlehem Steel,” Ramos said. “Even at the time, Mark McKenzie was not playing regularly for the Union. I think one thing we have to consider is that MLS is just more demanding and competitive now and the level has increased. It has been two years since I was the head coach of the Dynamo and now that I’m here in New England, I can see that it has risen in just that amount of time. That makes it a lot harder for a young player to play.”
Consequences of the gap
As we stand, the U.S. is in a central defense developmental gap that started with the 2001 birth year. We don’t yet know when the gap will end but it stands at four years (2001-2004) and counting.
What does this mean?
For the U.S. national team, it doesn’t mean much in the short term. The central defense pool is mostly known, and it probably sits at nine players: Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, Cameron Carter-Vickers, John Brooks, Matt Miazga, Miles Robinson, Auston Trusty, Mark McKenzie, and Chris Richards.
The good news is that most of these players will be in their prime through at least this cycle and into the next cycle.
The bad news, however, cannot be dismissed. For one, the central defense pool is unlikely to expand or change for a long time. If there are injuries, slumps, losses of playing time, etc., the options become limited.
But how about long term? The significance of the problem has divided options.
“In short: Nah, I'm not concerned,” Matt Doyle said. “Maybe this'll all look stupid come the 2034 cycle, but first, that's how far out we have to look for this to be an actual issue, and second, by that time, some 15-20-year-olds none of us has ever heard of will have developed into Ream/Robinson/Richards/Zimmerman/Carter-Vickers or better.”
For Omid Namazi, he believes the problem is significant based on how long it has been going on.
“Of course, it’s a big problem,” Namazi said. “If you see our senior team, of course we have the Pulisic’s and the Tim Weah’s and the Gio Reyna’s and the other quality attacking players but without the likes of Ream, Richards, Robinson, and a couple of others that are not too far off, we would struggle to have a good balance on the team.”
The crux of the problem, however, is that there is still not a wave of promising center backs playing professionally yet to provide a comfort level as to when the gap will end.
Whenever the gap ends, the U.S. team is going to have to go young quickly in central defense. They will bypass a lot of age-levels to hit the emerging group of players. The longer the gap is, the more abrupt the changes will have to be when it ends.
Second, as existing options age out of the national team pool, they will have to be replaced by somebody. A generational gap could likely lower the standard it takes to make and contribute to the team.
The biggest concern is that the U.S. could be forced to have too many eggs in to few baskets. Youth development has always been a numbers game. There will always be a percentage of prospects that don’t turn out. The more prospects you have, the more likely you will have at least a few high-level players.
Currently in central defense, the U.S. has a lot riding on a very limited number of players like Jalen Neal and Josh Wynder. If either or both players don’t pan out to an international level, the next best options are longer shots.
The U.S. will certainly start to feel the gap a little next year at the Olympics when the cutoff for the U-23 team is the 2001 birth year. There is simply not enough time for the gap to correct itself by then. Quite possibly, head coach Marko Mitrovic could use his limited overage options on one or, very likely, two central defense positions.
All of this raises the stakes on the 2005 and 2006 birth years (which will comprise of the next U-20 cycle) to have a high number of top players in central defense. An important measuring stick will be if first-team options emerge during the 2024 MLS season.
It’s not a problem that should cause panic, yet. There are existing options on the full team that should last a while. Plus, a few late bloomers could change the narrative. But the point is that if things don’t improve soon, it could become a big problem in the years ahead.
“I think back to several decades ago, and we were trying to produce attacking players and midfielders, who were good in possession,” Tab Ramos said. “We have largely accomplished that. But maybe I think central defense is an area we need to value more… it is a tough position to fill right now for a lot of teams.”