Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
MIAMI – It was not always easy for the U.S. Men’s National Team to crack open defenses and find the back of the net during the last round of World Cup qualifying, but to many fans and pundits the side’s weakness does not lie up front.
Rather, the team’s Achilles’ heel is widely considered to be in defense, particularly at centerback.
As the U.S. began its preparations for the start of the final round of CONCACAF World Qualifying on Monday, it did so with a group of centerbacks that has plenty of question marks surrounding it. From Carlos Bocanegra’s age to Geoff Cameron’s lack of reps in central defense at the club level to the pair of newcomers’ lack of international experience, there is plenty of concern regarding the status of the U.S.’s central defense as they head into Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier in Honduras.
The Americans recorded just one cleansheet in their six games in the last round of qualifying against the likes of Jamaica, Guatemala and Antigua & Barbuda, and they know they will need to show drastic improvement in order to successfully maneuver their way through the Hexagonal and to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“Listen, we’ve got some guys that have got to step up to the plate,” said Tim Howard. “Even though Geoff’s played in the Premier League, he’s not played a ton of games at centerback for the U.S., neither has Omar [Gonzalez], neither has Matty [Besler]. But this is where you make your money, this is where you get thrown into it and where the good ones become great.
“If it goes well, there’ll be one or two guys here that will go onto 100 caps because of this stretch.”
Bocanegra’s wealth of experience and his status as captain make him a lock to start against Los Catrachos in San Pedro Sula, but who is paired next to him is up for debate. On the surface, Cameron would be considered the favorite after having played next to the 33-year-old Bocanegra during the last round of qualifying.
“He’s still learning the centerback position, but you can see the improvement week in and week out,” Bocanegra said of Cameron. “When he comes in here I see his confidence, and it’s grows. I know that playing in the Premier League helps. He’s playing week in and week out. That transfers over to the national team, he brings that confidence in here, and you can see him improving and his confidence growing.”
As for Bocanegra’s own standing heading into Wednesday’s match, he is healthy and ready to take part in his third Hexagonal Round of World Cup qualifying.
“The winter break is nice. You get to recharge your batteries a little bit,” Bocanegra said of the recent Spanish League break. “Unfortunately the team’s not doing fantastic at the moment, but personally I feel good and a little bit rested.”
Klinsmann has turned to two new faces to serve as the understudies to Bocanegra and Cameron, with Besler and Gonzalez poised to move up the depth chart. They both impressed in the January camp and are strong candidates to take over as the next generation.
“We’re very pleased that we have people breaking through and they want to prove a point,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Omar is ready, Matt Besler is ready, they had a tremendous three-and-a-half-weeks camp, really very strong impression they left behind.
“That’s why they’re called in, the same with Brad Evans and Brad Davis. It was not all down to a Canada friendly game, it’s down to three-and-a-half weeks of commitment and performances in training sessions and scrimmages and that’s why they deserve to be here. But it gives us definitely more depth, it gives us more options and also the feeling there is the next generation knocking on the door.”
“You see guys like Omar, he’s been around but got injured, and a guy like Matt who won Defensive player of the year, they’re still fairly young guys as centerbacks,” Bocanegra said. “When I came in I was kind of lucky that all the guys kind of retired at the same time so I was able to get games earlier on, and I was playing in America as well.
“It’s a position where guys are going to have to come into sooner or later,” Bocanegra added. “These guys are getting confidence week in and week out, and they’re leaders on their teams, and they’re getting a taste of this environment and they’re only going to get better.”
Though he was not tested much, Gonzalez showed against the Canadians how much of an asset he is in the air. He cleaned up almost every aerial ball that came his way and also proved to be a dangerous target on set pieces, something which Klinsmann is likely to consider when thinking about the potential rugged terrain at the Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano.
Besler may not have been as dominant in the air as Gonzalez, but his passing against Canada was crisp for the most part and he never made any real blunders against a Canucks side that attempted to absorb pressure and hit back on the counter. It was not a bad appearance for Besler by any means, but it is still unlikely that the Sporting Kansas City defender starts after having just that one cap to his name.
Regardless of who Klinsmann goes with, you can expect Howard to be offering plenty of instructions from in between the pipes as he knows all too well how rowdy it can get in a qualifier in Central America.
“One of my strong points is keeping myself in the game and 90 minutes making sure everyone’s organize,” said Howard. “That’s one of the traits that I think that helps me get through a game and so I’ll be on top of the guys. It’s just how they absorb it and take it it on board and adapt to it.”
Should they do that, the Americans’ defense might be able to put a halt to a potent Honduras attack that will be made even more dangerous by the lively crowd expected to attend the game while also proving that central defense is once again one of the team’s strengths and not a weakness.
“I don’t know if it’s an area of concern. The guys we have are really, really good,” said Howard. “If we can pair one of them with Carlos and get his experience and then the rest of it, we’ll be okay.”