Sometimes the United States has eight fullbacks. Sometimes they have no fullbacks. But regardless of how many fullbacks the Americans have, there is one constant -- they don't have two good ones.
That has been a problem that has plagued the U.S. for the better part of the last 16 years. Even as the American player pool has improved, the team has thrived and the USSF has had to buy bigger and bigger trophy cases, they haven't been able to sort out the fullback spots. They haven't gone into a single major tournament settled at both spots, let alone a World Cup.
Most of the time, the left back position has been the U.S. black hole. At the 1998 World Cup, they didn't even bother with a left back and four years later Bruce Arena went through so many options, only for them all to disappoint, that he opted to put right back Frankie Hejduk on his weaker foot. By the time 2006 came around, midfielder Eddie Lewis was getting a chance, then Carlos Bocanegra -- a pair so unnatural that Lewis only played left back for the U.S. once more and managers made every attempt possible to keep Bocanegra in the center.
But four years later, Bocanegra was back on the left, only to be replaced by Jonathan Bornstein, who has played 13 club matches since. The U.S. left back spot is a disastrous carousel.
What the Americans needed was a savior, and the bar for savior was very low. Mildly competent would have been just fine and in 2011, that savior had come -- Fabian Johnson.
Johnson was a product of the German developmental system, having come up with 1860 Munich and even the Germany youth teams. He was 23 years old and a Bundesliga regular. The bar for savior may have been low, but he cleared it with ease and finally, the U.S. had solved their fullback problem.
Fabian Johnson celebrates after his goal against Turkey (Photo: Elsa/Getty Images)
Jurgen Klinsmann had just taken over the U.S. and he was going to do so with Johnson on the left and the always reliable Steve Cherundolo on the right. But just when the Americans had found a left back, they lost their right back -- Cherundolo began to battle knee injuries and while he did play in five third round qualifiers, his international career came to an end in October 2012.
Once again, the U.S. had an open fullback position with no good options.
Michael Parkhurst got a look at right back, but he didn't do enough to keep the job. Geoff Cameron played the position for his club, but he got exposed internationally. Finally, Klinsmann settled on Brad Evans and he got the U.S. through qualifying, but he wasn't even a right back for his club and faced with world class opponents in the World Cup, Klinsmann left him off the team.
So who is the U.S. left back? Johnson.
And who is the U.S. right back? Johnson.
It's become increasingly clear that Johnson, the Americans' savior at left back is also the same at right back, which is its own problem, a familiar problem -- the U.S. doesn't have two fullbacks.
In the Americans' first Send-Off Series match against Azerbaijan, Klinsmann opted for Johnson at right back at DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Beasley spent his entire career as a winger, but under Klinsmann he had become a left back, albeit a shaky one. His defensive skills are lacking and he's not going to win any physical battles, but he has a left foot and in the Americans' world, that's enough to make someone a candidate.
Simply being a candidate doesn't make one World Cup quality, though, and in the second Send-Off Series match, Timothy Chandler got the nod at left back. Unfortunately for the U.S., he doesn't play the position either and it showed. Chandler is a deficient defender on the right side and even worse on the left, something Turkey exposed repeatedly.
Now the U.S. is 90 minutes away from the World Cup and they still only have one competent fullback in Johnson. They have a pair of players in Beasley and Chandler who are pacey enough to hang with the wingers Ghana, Portugal and Germany will throw at them, but they don't have the quality of defender necessary. They also have a couple players off of the roster in Evans and Parkhurst, who are skilled enough defenders, but can't run with elite wingers.
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And so the U.S. will go to Brazil with one fullback, like always. Johnson could play right back or he could play left back. Maybe Chandler is better on the right, making it necessary to push Johnson to the left. Maybe the U.S. would rather keep Johnson on the right, with Beasley on the left. They can try whatever they would like, but they are going to the World Cup with a glaring hole regardless.
In 1998, that hole was far down the list of reasons the Americans were a disaster, and in 2002 they overcame their lack of a left back to reach the quarterfinals. The 2006 and 2010 World Cups were similar in that the U.S. needed two sub-standard left backs to make it through each, but the Americans went out after three matches in Germany, but won their group in 2010.
Fullback is the most common problem for international teams, but it's proven to be even worse for the U.S. This won't be the first time the U.S. goes to a World Cup without two fullbacks they can trust and it may send them out of the tournament. It may not even be a factor. History only tells us that the U.S. won't have fullbacks, not that they'll determine the Americans' fate, be it for good or bad.
Klinsmann can't be happy with his options, but neither was Bob Bradley, Arena or Steve Sampson. And the only thing the U.S. can hang onto is familiarity -- this is something they've done before, and a feeling of helplessness they have grown accustomed to.