By Ridge Mahoney
Minutes before leaving the U.S. team hotel to join his teammates for their final training session prior to a Hexagonal match Friday against Jamaica, Geoff Cameron laughed when asked if he knew if he’d be starting and if so, at which position.
“I have no idea. I’m just going with the flow, my man, going with the flow,” said Cameron, whose changeling existence as a pro player has been a constant since he started out in 2008 with Houston. “I’ll just show up for training and find out, hopefully, and go from there.”
Surely, some of Cameron’s response is steeped in the secrecy with which head coach Jurgen Klinsmann prefers to shroud his decisions from the public regarding personnel and tactics. Not that long ago, such decisions were also kept from the players until the very last minute, a restrictive policy that Klinsmann subsequently relaxed.
It took time for Cameron to understand and appreciate Klinsmann’s extensive tinkering. In the February Hexagonal opener against Honduras, he played centerback alongside Omar Gonzalez, then moved to right back to help the Americans shut out Costa Rica (in the snow), and Mexico (in the Azteca). Gonzalez kept his spot and was paired with Clarence Goodson and Matt Besler, respectively, in games two and three of the Hexagonal. Since then John Brooks has joined the pack of centerback candidates.
“When I was playing centerback and thought I was doing well, he brought in other guys to give them experience and more time so they could get used to the system,” says Cameron. “When I was upset because I wasn’t playing, he came to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re still there, we just need to give other guys experience.’ I had to take that and know he still believed in me and had confidence in me. Then there was an opportunity to play another position, like defensive center mid or right back.”
It’s at right back where Cameron plays for his English Premier League club, Stoke City, yet Klinsmann has his own mind in these matters. Sounders midfielder Brad Evans is often the choice at right back.
Cameron makes no secret about his preference. An emergency stint at central mid against Costa Rica in September as a last-minute change necessitated when Michael Bradleyrolled his ankle in pre-game warmups returned him to the familiar slot he played in college and occasionally in the pro ranks.
He had played alongside Bradley in all three June Hexagonal games, though only against Panama did he start. Eddie Johnson ran onto a long ball played by Cameron to score the clinching goal in a 2-0 win; in the other two Hexagonal games, he replaced Bradley’s central midfield partner, Jermaine Jones.
“Every position’s different, it has its angles and mentality,” says Cameron. “For me, playing center mid is a fun, fun position and I think it’s one of my best positions, if not my best positions. I really enjoyed it that game, especially playing with Michael.
“I told him, ‘I’m going to sit in front of the back four in front of the centerbacks and make their job easier but also when I’m on the ball get the ball to you as soon as I can so you can do your thing.’ I think it worked out really, really well.”
Dynamo head coach Dominic Kinnearcaused some consternation by shifting a rangy, skillful midfielder to centerback early in his pro career, but the move paid off huge when Cameron earned MLS Best XI honors in 2009. He certainly bears the size (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), strength, ruggedness and agility required in the middle. But he played mostly attacking mid in college (West Virginia and Rhode Island) and needed some major mentoring.
Cameron credits former Houston teammate Bobby Boswell, a best XI honoree himself in 2006 with D.C. United, for showing him the ways and means of defending.
“I had such a good relationship and he taught me how to play centerback really, really well, and how to understand the position,” says Cameron, who worked hard to understand life on the other side of the ball. “Bobby’s such a great player, very, very underrated. He knows how to organize people, he’s a hard-nosed defender, and he’s an honest player and a great guy. I don’t think people give him enough credit.”
He’s also convinced Americans players still don’t receive enough credit in England, despite the exploits of players like Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. The mood has changed but skepticism persists.
“There’s still that attitude of ‘why are they here?’ and they still question it,” says Cameron. “I think Clint said he felt that throughout his career. He’s a guy who continued to do well and scored goals and was a big-time player in the EPL, and still there were people who looked at him differently.
“You will always come across people who don’t think you can play. But I think that’s just ignorance. It’s slowly starting to turn but there will always those people that question how good an American is. You just have to deal with it. That’s why you surround yourself with friends and the people who mean more to you. You clear out the negativity and just stay positive.”
A positive outlook is a vital element of the Klinsmann approach. Cameron says recently hired manager Mark Hughes, a former Welsh international and Premier League goalscoring star, brings the same attitude. Hughes also wants the ball on the ground more than his predecessor, Tony Pulis, who moved Cameron to right back yet also played him some at defensive mid.
“Last year was frustrating,” says Cameron, who joined Stoke City in August 2012 for a transfer fee of $2.7 million. “Playing in the EPL and starting a lot of games my first year was pretty tough. I was starting in a position I wasn’t comfortable at and never really saw the ball. I think I’m enjoying right back now more than I ever have because I’m playing good football for Stoke. I’m on the ball now, I’m getting up and down into the attack. I’m enjoying that more than I ever have.”
As to where and how much he figures in Klinsmann’s plans, he must wait and find out. He’s played multiple positions. He’s started at right back and been a sub at defensive mid. He scored a goal against Belgium and set one up against Panama. He’s already 28, so his international window is narrower than that of many teammates. He’d like some clarity.
“I was trying to prove to the coaches I can play at any time in any position and play at a pretty high level and not have them miss the guy who’s supposed to be there,” he says of his roller-coaster ride in 2013. “But in saying that, I don’t want to be a utility guy who plays only in case of suspension or something like that and I’m the first guy off the bench. No, I want to start.
“I’m a starter with my club team and I want to play, whether it’s right back or center back or center defensive mid. Those are the positions I want to fight for and I’m hoping for that now.”