By Ridge Mahoney
To those who contend Jonathan Bornstein was a disaster as a USA left back, watch again his appearances at the 2010 World Cup.
He was far from the best player on the field, but once then-coach Bob Bradley decided to slide Carlos Bocanegra inside to replace Oguchi Onyewu and deploy Bornstein on the left, the former Chivas USA man performed capably against Algeria and Ghana.
Recurring problems subsequently returned for the USA at left back, with Zach Loyd, Heath Pearce, Tim Chandler, Eric Lichaj and Edgar Castillo sharing the duties to varying success during 2011, but Fabian Johnson’s impressive showing against Italy in February of last year instilled him as the No. 1 choice.
Though he’s relatively new to the USA scene, he’s 25, and started his pro career in 2005 with 1860 Munich’s second team as a teenager. Only time will tell but given good health he could be a fixture for the next two World Cups.
The chasing pack is a scramble, but one that Coach Jurgen Klinsmann needs to sort out with 10 Hexagaonal qualifiers plus the Gold Cup to be played this year necessitating at least two dependable alternatives.
These rankings are based on national-team performances, future prospects for club and country and for MLS players, their placings in those positional rankings.
Soccer America's Top 6 U.S. Left Backs
1. Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), 10 caps.
2. Edgar Castillo (Tijuana), 7.
3. Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg), 15.
4. Heath Pearce (New York Red Bulls), 35.
5. Eric Lichaj (Aston Villa), 8.
6. Todd Dunivant (Los Angeles Galaxy), 2.
Johnson’s shift to left back has been mirrored at Hoffenheim. He played mostly right mid and right back last year for his club, and debuted for the USA in midfield for the last two games of 2011. Despite his lack of left-sided-ness he’s a reliable defender on that flank and with time his crossing with that foot will improve. He’s also fast enough to recover from an overlapping run, strong enough to win tackles and aerial duels, and confident enough to cut inside to get a shot off his right foot.
Castillo has benefitted from Klinsmann’s effort to dip into the Mexican League for players and Tijuana’s amazing run to the Apertura title last month. The speedy, clever New Mexico product played 20 of 23 games (including playoffs) for Xolos but hasn’t shaken questions about his defensive positioning and acumen at the international level, and thus doesn’t have the No. 2 slot locked up.
A couple of solid USA games in 2012 from Parkhurst, who played more right back for Nordsjaelland prior to the German move, has revived his national-team fortunes. Blessed with good skills and anticipatory instincts vital at this level, he’s joined a newcomer to the big time destined to battle relegation, so every Bundesliga minute will be crammed with pressure. He turns 29 this month, so this move comes at a critical phase in his career.
Pearce, 28, played all along the back line for New York after being traded by Chivas USA, and didn’t appear for the USA after the two January games last year. He’s not in this year’s January camp, either, and so despite a European background, nimble feet, and the most caps among these candidates, his prospects are clouded.
So, too, are those of Lichaj, who started four 2011 Gold Cup games at left back but has never played for Klinsmann and is laboring at right back for a Villa squad pinned near the Premier League basement. He’s been in England since 2007, has been loaned out several times, and at age 24 needs to get his club situation stabilized.
Since his rookie MLS season in 2003 Dunivant, 32, has toughened himself into a reliable defender who hits great left-footed crosses and set pieces. He’s not played for the USA since 2006 but still rates highly among Americans at his position, having been named to the MLS Best XI while helping the Galaxy win its first of back-to-back league titles.
Not completely out of the picture are Loyd and Jonathan Spector. Like many players in this pool both have considerable experience on the right side as well.