By: Colin Reese
Selecting American footballers that excel as center backs or defensive midfielders is an excellent way to maximize roster space, while upping the skill level, speed, and agility of center backs.
Geoff Cameron is the perfect example of this.
Cameron has the skill-set and athleticism of a defensive midfielder or of a central midfielder, but he can effectively play as a center back or as an outside back.
Michael Orozco and Maurice Edu are other examples of this, as are young American players such as Shane O’Neill, Caleb Stanko, and Amobi Okugo.
Center backs who are converted defensive midfielders is the trend in world football because these players have proved to be very effective at improving the skill and athleticism of the defense, which is then better suited to defend elite attackers.
Thiago Silva and David Luiz are the prototypical examples of this new variety of center back, and both players can play as center backs or as central midfielders.
Center backs of this caliber basically make less skilled, less athletic, and less agile center backs look like dinosaurs.
For the United States Men’s National Team, embracing the selection of this type of player to double as center backs and defensive midfielders makes Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, and most notably Clarence Goodson, obsolete and pedestrian.
If the goal is to have a more-skilled national team and a more-athletic national team, then these types of players improve the ability of the United States to keep possession and work the ball out of the ball without giving away possession.
These hybrid players like Cameron, Edu, O’Neill, Stanko, and Okugo open up roster spots for the types of attacking players that the United States really needs to close the gap with top national teams.
Without players like Kyle Beckerman, Clarence Goodson, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler on the roster, the United States can have more game-changers like Joe Corona, Benny Feilhaber, Mix Diskerud, Benji Joya, and even Freddy Adu to ensure that Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan, Jozy Altidore, Aron Jóhannsson, Juan Agudelo, and Terrence Boyd receive adequate service.
In short, having players double as center backs and as defensive midfielders gives the United States a more technically-skilled and athletic roster with more roster space for the skill players or creative game-changers that help the United States to produce a higher caliber of play.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are considered the starting American center backs by the American soccer media and most of the American fan base, but what if players like Shane O’Neill and Caleb Stanko manned the center of the defense with Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley in front of them to protect them and support them?
The likely response from many people would be that O’Neill and Stanko are young and inexperienced players, but more importantly, they are more skilled and more athletic center backs than Gonzalez and Besler, who themselves arguably haven’t seen the same level of attackers that O’Neill and Stanko faced with the U-20 U.S. national team.
Change requires that you actually change something, and you can’t make center backs like Gonzalez and Besler more agile and more technically-skilled just because you hope their experience in CONCACAF will just magically compensate for their deficiencies.
Americans might be more comfortable with some combination of Cameron, Edu, and Orozco playing as the center backs, depending on whether or not one wants Cameron playing as the defensive midfielder over Jermaine Jones, but the basic premise is the same: technical and athletic central midfielders with strong defensive skills are more effective than less agile and less technical center backs.
If Gonzalez and Besler are only capable of playing basic passes or hitting long balls, then it’s better to let more advanced footballers man the center of the defense.
Klinsmann wants the possession and passing to begin from the back, but Gonzalez and Besler don’t fit this mold as well as Cameron, Orozco, Edu, O’Neill, Stanko, and Okugo do.
Selecting Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Shane O’Neill, Michael Orozco, Maurice Edu, and Shane O’Neill fulfills all of the United States’ defensive midfield and center back needs, and thus Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, Clarence Goodson, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Besler become unnecessary.
Among those last five players, only Jones is a high-caliber footballer with proven experience against elite competition, so while room might have to be made for him, the other four are surplus to requirements.
Ultimately, O’Neill and Stanko in the center of the defense with Cameron and Bradley in front of them as the line of two and then Landon Donovan, Benny Feilhaber, and Clint Dempsey rounding out the line of three attacking midfielders is an upgrade to the USA World Cup roster in terms of technical ability and athleticism.
These sorts of Starting XI changes are actual progress in terms of the collective quality of the United States national team because they acknowledge the weaknesses in the American roster, and make real changes to strengthen those weaknesses.