Photo by ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SEATTLE – The latest examples of players on the U.S. Men’s National Team who have stepped up and made the most of their opportunities when called upon have come in defense, with Matt Besler and Brad Evans recently proving more than serviceable options for U.S head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Now, Klinsmann is surely hoping that players in his midfield can do the same.
Midfield stalwarts Jermaine Jones (concussion) and Graham Zusi (yellow card accumulation) will both be unavailable for Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Panama at CenturyLink Field, and their absences will open the door for other players who have not seen as much time lately to fill in and impress Klinsmann and the rest of the U.S. coaching staff much in the same way that Evans and Besler have in recent months.
While the loss of both Jones and Zusi undoubtedly hurts the Americans’ midfield, the team is confident that there are several capable options on the bench. Geoff Cameron, a traditional center midfielder who has spent much of the past two years in defense for club and country, is one of those options.
In fact, Cameron might be the odds-on favorite to replace Jones on Tuesday given that he was subbed on for the German-American ahead of Sacha Kljestan after Jones suffered a concussion in the 59th minute of the Americans’ 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica at Independence Park last Friday.
“He’s got a good body for the position, he runs really easily, he’s got good physical stature, so it would make a good partnership (with Michael Bradley),” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “But we also have options, with Sacha in there and Sacha can also play wide. As much as Graham has been fantastic for us on the wing and Jermaine’s been a rock, we’ve got options and I don’t think we’ll lose a beat so that’s a positive.”
Cameron showed well in his brief cameo at center midfield in Kingston, serving as another good link between the defense and the attack. Cameron also provided solid defense and energy that allowed Bradley to push further up the field and into more dangerous positions vs. the Reggae Boyz.
“I told him, I thought he put in a really good shift in the center midfield,” said Howard. “We needed him to kind of use his legs and get around the pitch a bit and kind of dictate things and dominate, and I thought he did that really well. His passing was good, he found good spots to receive the ball, didn’t hide, so I thought it was a really good performance.”
As for Zusi’s replacement on Tuesday, there are several options. Klinsmann could use Fabian Johnson on the right side to make way for either Brad Davis or Edgar Castillo on the left flank. But what Klinsmann could also do is field one of Eddie Johnson or Joe Corona, two players who are not traditional wingers but who have been used in wide spots before.
For instance, Eddie Johnson was deployed as a left-sided midfielder in his U.S. return against Antigua & Barbuda in the last round of qualifying and in that match he scored twice to lift the U.S. to an important 2-1 victory. Johnson then followed up that performance with an assist in a 3-1 triumph over Guatemala, a sign that he is comfortable and productive out on the wings even if that is not his preferred place to be.
“I’ve played there. I got two goals and an assist from playing out wide,” said Johnson. “At the end of the day, I’m not the coach, I don’t make the decisions but we’re in this camp for a reason. If the coach is going to put us, or if it’s myself out wide, he put me outside for a reason, because he sees something in me or sees that I can be more affective out there against that opponent on that given day.”
Corona may be more of an outside shot to replace Zusi, but he is the player who would give Klinsmann the least amount of tinkering to do if he were to start. Klinsmann has said previously that he considers Corona a right midfield option despite him playing more centrally for his club team, Tijuana, and Corona said Sunday he feels comfortable out wide.
“When I first started playing with Xolos, that was my position at first then I was moving up into the middle,” said Corona. “I’m familiar with the position.”
“If Joe plays, he’s a tricky winger,” said Howard. “He gets up and down, he provides good service, he likes to keep the width but also come inside, a bit like Graham.”
The U.S. may have several options in midfield to replaces Jones and Zusi, but Klinsmann now needs to pinpoint which ones will be the most likely to deliver on Tuesday.
Accomplish that and the U.S. will not only improve their chances of picking up three more crucial points in qualifying, but also show once again just how deep the team really is.