TORONTO, CANADA - JUNE 3: Clarence Goodson #21 of USA wins a battle for the battle against Simeon Jackson #10 of Canada during their international friendly match on June 3, 2012 at BMO Field in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
Forget the strikers or any other concerns, center back has been and continues to be the United States' biggest problem.
Goals, goals, goals, who is going to score goals for the United States? If you are asking that then you are asking the wrong question.
While the American public has long wondered who would play striker for the U.S. or who would be the first American superstar would be, even who would be the team's next manager, the biggest question the U.S. has had to answer is where are they getting a center back from? It may not be the spotlight position or the sexy job, but it's the one that has given the U.S. fits for almost five years now.
In the final round of qualifying for the 2010 World Cup the U.S. allowed 13 goals after allowing just six in the final round of 2006 World Cup qualifying. At the 2010 World Cup, while people were fretting over it being the second straight World Cup that an American striker had failed to score, the U.S. was busy allowing five goals in four matches. Even under Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. has registered just three clean sheets in 11 matches with their first team.
The defense is is not a new one for the U.S., but as they get ready to begin another cycle of World Cup qualification, it is the most important one for the U.S. to answer and the heart of that problem lies at center back.
Carlos Bocanegra has been shuttled between left back and center back, but he has at least looks capable of playing in the center. He's settled in there now, he is the captain, done. Okay, there is one center back for the U.S., but what about the other one? Different guys keep getting chances, but neither has been able to take advantage so here the U.S. sits, with one match and five days left before World Cup qualifying starts, and still no center back partner for Bocanegra.
Oguchi Onyewu used to be the answer at center back, but the hulking defender was one step below dreadful against Brazil last Wednesday. He was whistled for a penalty, kept a man onside for a goal and was involved in several U.S. breakdowns at the back. It was another in a long line of poor performances for Onyewu, who has never quite recovered from the torn patellar tendon he suffered in October of 2009.
Onyewu doesn't compliment Bocanegra particularly well, lacking the speed to cover and his inability to pass out of the back means he doesn't fit what Klinsmann wants from his center backs. His latest shoddy performance against Brazil should have been the last straw for Onyewu and earned him a lengthy leave from the national team, but it didn't, as evidenced by his coming off the bench against Canada. Still, if Onyewu plays a meaningful match for the Americans, they are in major trouble.
That Onyewu struggled wasn't much of a surprise. The U.S. has known since the 2010 World Cup that they were in desperate need of another center back, preferably a younger, more athletic one to compliment the aging Bocanegra.
One of those younger, albeit not so much more athletic options to get a chance was Omar Gonzalez, who got a look under former U.S. manager Bob Bradley. He performed okay and then really increased his stock last year with a sterling club season when he was MLS's best defender. Even so, Jurgen Klinsmann passed on calling him up. Whether that was smart or not isn't of any real consequence now, though, because he has a torn ACL so he isn't even an option.
Klinsmann did find one younger, more athletic center back that he liked in Michael Orozco-Fiscal and he handed the defender a handful of call ups, but the more Orozco-Fiscal played the more it was clear that he wasn't international quality. He hasn't been called up this year, much to the delight of Americans everywhere who were convinced that the only readon Orozco-Fiscal got call ups was to give hope to the pub leaguer that he too could make the national team.
Tim Ream was another in the group of "next great U.S. center back" who saw his star dim as soon as he started getting call ups. Klinsmann gave him some chances last year, but Ream was in the midst of a year to forget and was terrible. It looked like his chance might have passed, but after a January move to Bolton Wanderers, the center back started to raise his level of play. By the end of the season he looked like a real option for the U.S. again as his quality of defending began to match his quality of passing, but he and Klinsmann decided that he needed to rest after a long season. Finally a good, promising center back and he wouldn't even be with the team.
Whether it be because of injury, rest of not being up to snuff, Klinsmann's options dwindled. In fact, for the next two matches he has just two options available to him, even if the bigger picture is over the next two years, not just the two upcoming World Cup qualifiers.
Geoff Cameron got the start for the U.S. against Scotland and was a mixed bag. He showed off the athleticism and skill on the ball that makes him such a tantalizing prospect, but he was also caught napping on the Scots' lone goal. Having spent his professional career moving from center back to midfielder to center back to midfielder and now back to center back, he doesn't quite have the experience that the U.S. would like in their center back. But the U.S. can't exactly be picky and he certainly has the highest ceiling of any of the others, both defending on the ground, in the air and with his distribution.
The other option for Klinsmann is Clarence Goodson, who has played extensively for Klinsmann in the past. He doesn't exactly fit the young or athletic requirements, being 30 years old and more a threat in the air than trying to run with strikers. He doesn't git Klinsmann's style either, as he is one step above inept in his distribution, but he is experienced and can be counted on to make decent decisions. He got the start against Canada and was the only American to put in a decent shift. That performance likely earned him starts in the U.S.' first two World Cup qualifiers, but again, he is older and not particularly athletic.
The problem right now for the U.S. isn't just that they don't have a second center back. It is that they have had 10 months to find one and Klinsmann couldn't do it, often turning to Goodson or Onyewu instead of grooming the younger option that everyone and their others knew they needed to do. Be it Gonzalez, Cameron or Ream, Klinsmann failed to give the opportunities to a younger defender who could be the answer for the Americans. The only younger player who got a look was the man nobody thought was good enough to get a look and Orozco-Fiscal proved he wasn't good enough.
Because the last 10 months have been nearly wasted in terms of finding that younger option, the U.S. will have to try to get one of the younger defenders experience on the fly. But now that on-the-fly learning will come in qualifiers, not meaningless friendlies where mistakes can be excused. Either that or Goodson or Onyewu is the answer, an older player with limited upside who does not compliment Bocanegra particularly well and in no way fits the possession-dominant, pass out of the back style that Klinsmann is trying to implement. These are the consequences of a wasted 10 months at the position most in need of a fix.
Klinsmann took over as U.S. manager in August and had one big, glaring hole -- center back. A lot of people have focused on the lack of a dominant American striker for years, but center back has been a much bigger problem ever since Onyewu hurt his knee and the goals against prove it. For a variety of reasons, Klinsmann is down to just two options for now -- Cameron and Goodson. And whoever he chooses, both now and going forward, may be the player who most determines how the Klinsmann's U.S. team does not just in the next week in World Cup qualifying, but in the next two years as they march onto the 2014 World Cup.