By Ridge Mahoney
How much in flux is the center back position on the U.S. national team? Well, the top-rated player is a former midfielder toiling at right back for his club team.
Though Carlos Bocanegra leads the back line and often serves as USA captain, his age (33) and currently injured status opens up the top spot for his regular partner. In 2012, he and Geoff Cameron started four games as the central pair.
There are myriad questions attached to just about everyone else in the pool, yet with a heavy slate of three qualifiers in June, followed by possibly as many as six Gold Cup matches the following month, at least a half-dozen players will likely be starting in the middle. While 2013 is being forecast by some observers as a year-long coming out party for Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, other MLS veterans such as Matt Besler and Jeff Parke are also expected to get a few looks.
The rankings are based on national-team appearances, future prospects, and in the case of MLS players, their placing in those annual positional rankings.
Soccer America’s Top 10 Center Backs
1. Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), 11.
2. Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), 110.
3. Omar Gonzalez (Los Angeles Galaxy), 2.
4. Clarence Goodson (Broendby), 34.
5. Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), 0.
6. Jeff Parke (Philadelphia Union), 1.
7. Oguchi Onyewu (Malaga), 66.
8. Nat Borchers (Real Salt Lake), 3.
9. Austin Berry (Chicago), 0.
10. Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), 7.
So far, Cameron has handled the transition to the Premier League and playing right back more than capably. How adeptly he handles the Concacaf heavies, cross-Atlantic trips, and the second half of his first season overseas will determine if he retains the starting spot.
He’s proved to be rugged enough for the defensive demands and Jurgen Klinsmann much prefers to play someone who can use the ball as well as win it. But he needs an experienced player beside him and that could work against the introduction of Gonzalez to the starting lineup if Bocanegra isn’t available.
Gonzalez’s return to MLS play in July helped turn around the Galaxy’s season, and he’s unquestionably the league’s best defender. The transition to international play will challenge the 6-foot-5, 205-pounder at a much higher level, and there will be some painful but vital lessons to be learned by a young man with immense potential.
Aside from Bocanegra and Cameron, who each played 10 national-team games last year, Goodson registered the most appearances (7). His generally solid play has been marred by rash errors and clumsy fouls, and so his national team future is squarely in a crossroads. Onyewu, a starter of two games at the 2010 World Cup, is struggling to get his career back on track in Spain.
The crowded 2013 schedule comes at a perfect time for Besler, a 2009 draft pick (No. 8 overall) whose progressed and improved impressively. The MLS Defender of the Year in 2012 is a smart defender who reads the game well and seldom takes up a poor position. He’s more mobile than some of his bigger counterparts and needs to prove he can prevail against Concacaf forwards.
Parke is coming off an excellent season for Seattle, which at his request traded him to Philly. At 30, he’s among the older players on this list, and does have considerable experience against Concacaf club opponents. Borchers hasn’t played for the USA since 2010 but there’s a strong link between RSL and the national team.
Rookie of the Year Berry turned in the most impressive debut season of any defender since Gonzalez won the award in 2009. An impressive blend of quickness and toughness, there’s great upside awaiting him for club and country. Ream’s move to Bolton has gone badly; Bolton was relegated to the League Championship last spring and he’s not playing much.
The fringe candidates include Dynamo stalwart Bobby Boswell; former youth international Gale Agbossoumonde, who ran out of options in Europe yet has probably made the right move to MLS at age 22; and John Anthony Brooks of Hertha Berlin.