U.S. competition heats up at supposed weak link

With a goal and assist, Steven Birnbaum was the hero of the USA's 3-2 win over Iceland, making a case for himself at center back. But where does he fit in? There's suddenly stiff competition at a position often considered the USA's weak link.

Between Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks excelling in Mexico and Germany, respectively, and U-23s Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers climbing up the ranks, even Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, who ended last year as Jurgen Klinsmann's first choices at center back, can't be secure of their starting jobs for long.

Here's a rundown on the center-back position as the USA looks ahead to a busy 2016 ...

World Cup 2014 Starters

MATT BESLER (Sporting KC, 28). The lone player to start at center back in all four 2014 World Cup games, Besler seemingly landed in Klinsmann's doghouse -- who hasn't been there? -- for saying his goal was to be fit on March 1 -- the start of the MLS season -- not at January camp. That was a year ago, and after missing out on the Gold Cup, he was back in Klinsmann's good graces by the fall, starting in the Concacaf Cup against Mexico, and begins the year as the leader of the backline.

GEOFF CAMERON (Stoke City, 30). He also skipped last summer's Gold Cup, at the urging of Stoke City, but like Besler was Klinsmann's choice for the Concacaf Cup and the two World Cup 2018 qualifiers in November. An ankle injury has kept him on the sidelines since the beginning of January. Potters manager Mark Hughes was using Cameron in midfield, but when he returns he'll find competition from young Frenchman Giannelli Imbula, signed for a club record $26 million transfer fee.

OMAR GONZALEZ (Pachuca, 27). Gonzalez is one of the most decorated players in MLS history -- 2009 Rookie of the Year, 2011 Defender of the Year, Best XI pick in 2011, 2012 and 2014, MLS champion with the LA Galaxy the same three years -- but it all came to an end when he was transferred to Pachuca in Mexico in December. The Galaxy basically had no choice to move him after it signed Giovani dos Santos, but Gonzalez has flourished thanks to the change of scenery. Pachuca is unbeaten and in first place with Gonzalez in the starting lineup.

Gold Cup Duo

JOHN BROOKS (Hertha Berlin, 23). Brooks started at the Gold Cup with Ventura Alvarado, and Klinsmann's decision to stick with the young duo came in for heavy criticism after the USA fell to Jamaica, 2-1, in the semifinals. Brooks' summer commitments and injuries kept him out of the Hertha Berlin lineup for a good part of the fall, and by the end of the national team's fall campaign, he had for the first time been dropped to the U.S. under-23s. But he finished the first half of the Bundesliga season strongly, winning back his starting job at Hertha, which is contending for a Champions League berth. There was even a report that Bayern Munich inquired about Brooks before he re-signed last weekend with Hertha.



VENTURA ALVARADO (Club America, 23). Alvarado debuted on the national team last March after breaking into the starting lineup at Club America for its 2014 Torneo Apertura title run, but by the end of the year he was back on the bench at America. In between, he formed the USA's center-back partnership with Brooks, playing on his preferred right side. Alvarado began the year back in the America lineup at right back, but only because Mexican international Paul Aguilar is injured.

Next Generation

MATT MIAZGA (Chelsea, 20). After just one full season as a starter for the New York Red Bulls, Miazga was transferred to Chelsea for a transfer fee reported to be $5 million. The English club had been tracking Miazga, who had an excellent Under-20 World Cup tournament in New Zealand. He moved up quickly to the U-23s and debuted against St. Vincent & the Grenadines in World Cup qualifying November. That cap ties Miazga, born to Polish parents, to the USA.

CAMERON CARTER-VICKERS (Tottenham, 18). Started alongside Miazga on the U-20s and later with the U-23s and never looked out of place, considering he was three years younger than his partner.  CCV, the son of former NBA player Howard Carter, spent the fall captaining the Spurs' U-21s, and Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino says he's ready to move on up to the first team as potential cover for its run for a top four place in the EPL.

Outsiders

STEVEN BIRNBAUM (D.C. United, 25). Suffered through a sophomore slump with D.C. United after earning his first national team cap in January 2015, but Klinsmann remains high on him. Birnbaum justified that confidence with an assist on the tying goal against Iceland and the last-minute winning goal.

MICHAEL OROZCO (Tijuana, 29). Orozco is a player you forget about but keeps popping back up on the national team. He endeared himself to Klinsmann by scoring the winning goal in the USA's first win over Mexico at Azteca Stadium in 2012. He's mostly played at center back and Klinsmann has used him on the outside, like in the second half against Iceland when he scored the tying goal.

Four for the Copa Centenario? Besler, Gonzalez, Brooks, Miazga.

4 comments about "U.S. competition heats up at supposed weak link".
  1. Albert Harris, February 3, 2016 at 10:48 a.m.

    Seems a balanced article and have no problems with PK's take although for the Centenario I'd substitute Cameron for Miazga...Let the kid settle in with a his new club. Same for the other youngsters. All depending on injuries and form of course. Birnbaum's a work in progress; be interesting to see if he develops or stagnates. Given his age and the other options, I'm inclined to think Orozco has missed the boat...he doesn't seem to be starting for Tijuana even when they play 3 CB's so unless, he's injured, his present coach doesn't see him as a starter.

  2. Dan Phillips, February 3, 2016 at 12:58 p.m.

    What about Timmy Chandler?

  3. Chris Sapien , February 3, 2016 at 2:29 p.m.

    ^^^^funny Dan lol......

  4. cisco martinez, February 3, 2016 at 3:56 p.m.

    The only solid defender we can count on in the international level is Geoff Cameron, John Brooks has not proven to be consistent, Besler is not good against more physical forwards, and all the other defenders aren't proven defenders.

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