Solid showings in midfield didn’t dissuade Dynamo head coachDominic Kinnear, when strapped for centerbacks, to shift Geoff Cameron into the back line. He did well enough to earn one of just three defender slots on the MLS Best XI in 2009, and eventually his fortunes in England and national team career would follow the same path.
On the eve of the U.S. World Cup opener against Ghana, it seems Cameron has supplanted Galaxy stalwart Omar Gonzalez as a starter at centerback. Cameron played all three U.S. warm-up games in the middle and whether because of a minor injury that hampered Gonzalez during the preparation phase or Cameron’s performance itself he’s found a spot alongside Matt Besler in central defense.
“Omar came into camp a little bit behind because of a knee problem and so camp starts and that positions everyone a little bit ahead of him,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the first warmpup match, a 2-0 defeat of Azerbaijan in San Francisco.
Starting in the World Cup would be another notable achievement for the 28-year-old Cameron, who moved from MLS to English Premier League club Stoke City in August 2012, and at first lined up at defensive midfield. It was a difficult first season at Stoke, though he started 29 of his 35 appearances for manager Tony Pulis. The Potters avoided relegation by finishing 13th in the 20-team league but didn’t win many plaudits for their style of play.
“Playing in the EPL and starting a lot of games my first year was pretty tough,” recalls Cameron, who grew up in Attleboro, Massachusetts, as a Revs fan -- along with the Bruins and Patriots and Red Sox and Celtics -- and played collegiately at West Virginia and Rhode Island. “I was starting in a position I wasn’t comfortable at and never really saw the ball. I didn’t get to show my abilities as much as I could’ve. I played some at defensive mid and I showed well. But then I’d go back to right back.”
Mark Hughes,a feared forward in his playing days for Manchester United, Chelsea and the Welsh national team, took over as manager for the 2013-14 season and though he kept Cameron at right back, he also instituted a more technical, possession method of play that not only suited the tall (6-foot-3) American but brought results as well. Cameron scored against Aston Villa last March as Stoke managed a very creditable ninth-place finish. He started 37 of 38 league matches and accumulated 41 appearances overall.
“I think I’m enjoying right back now more than I ever have because I’m playing good football for Stoke,” says Cameron, who in the Hughes system occasionally gets to relive a bit of his days as an attacking mid. “I’m on the ball now, I’m getting up and down into the attack. I’m enjoying that more than I ever have.
“I thought it was a really, really good year for me, personally. We finished top 10, so there’s not much more to ask for. It was great because we played better football, I was getting the ball a lot in an attacking role. I thought I kind of came into my own toward the end of the season.”
He would seem to be an ideal candidate to play a similar game at right back for Klinsmann, but the coach has adamantly stated he’s a center back for the national team. Replicating the role he accepted for the Dynamo actually enables to him to draw upon some excellent mentoring he believes greatly accelerated his development and sent him along on this path to one of the world’s top leagues.
“The one player who’s helped me out in my career is Bobby Boswell,” says Cameron of the former Dynamo defender who was traded last winter to D.C. United. “I had such a good relationship and he taught me how to play centerback really, really well, and how to understand the position.
“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. I stay in very close contact with him and we talk on a regular basis.”
Much of the talk regarding the World Cup is how the U.S. back line will hold up. The Americans have made significant progress since Klinsmann took over in 2011 and Cameron’s toughness, stamina and technical skill are among the attributes most highly valued by the German head coach.
Cameron is one of numerous players who were shuttled in and out of the lineup as Klinsmann tinkered with systems and formations and personnel. The explanations weren’t always easy to swallow but in the long run, the message stayed the same: there will be opportunities, but that means playing time has to be spread around.
“He’s definitely given guys opportunities because that’s the only way they can get experience,” says Cameron. “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. 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.’”
Cameron earned his 27th cap in the final send-off game against Nigeria and started the sequence on the first U.S. goal with a pass to Jermaine Jones. Switching from Stoke to the USA requires major changes in tempo and intensity and many other elements, but the patterns of play are not far apart.
“It’s very, very similar to Jurgen,” he says. “I think that’s why everyone enjoys playing for the U.S. and playing for Jurgen. He’s so positive and he instills confidence and he believes in your ability. Jurgen gave me a few days off to regenerate my body a little bit, to recover, and then headed to camp."
Now, Cameron looks to be headed to make his first World Cup start Monday night against Ghana in Natal.