Central defense may be the United States’ deepest position, but it’s also the spot with the least certainty at the top. Whereas every other depth chart has a clear number one, central defense is evolving, with a converted midfielder recently affirming his place at the top of the pecking order. That a 27-year-old with little national team experience has been able to vault to the top of this list reflects the changing demands on a U.S. central defender.
A better example of that change may end up being Maurice Edu. We still rank Edu as a central midfielder, but Jurgen Klinsmann continues to intimate the Stoke-man’s future may be in defense. Part of that potential shift is due to the States’ logjam in the middle, but it also reflects a shift in approach. The athleticism, speed, and ability on the ball Edu possesses are now in greater demand at the back.
For that reason, this list looks like a mix of two worlds – the players who were the cornerstones of Bob Bradley’s defenses combining with a handful of names reflecting the position’s evolution.
1. Geoff Cameron, 27, Stoke City (England)
One year ago, Cameron wasn’t even sure his future was in defense. He was the solution that kept coming up after the disappointment of the 2011 Gold Cup, but the then-Dynamo all-star still thought of himself as a midfielder (as he’d tell anybody who’d ask). Now Cameron’s started three straight matches in central defense, at the same time finding a new position at Stoke: right back.
2. Carlos Bocanegra, 33, Racing Santander (Spain, on loan from Rangers, Scotland)
The captain’s stock looked to be dropping last month, but between a Clarence Goodson suspension (for Jamaica in Columbus) and Fabian Johnson’s illness, we haven’t been able to see if Bocanegra’s truly fallen in the pecking order. His benching in Kingston could prove to be a one-time thing, though if Goodson’s picked over Bocanegra the next time everybody’s available, this order will have to change.
3. Clarence Goodson, 30, Brondby (Denmark)
Goodson stepped into the void created by Oguchi Onyewu’s injuries, but with Geoff Cameron emerging, the Brondby captain is back in a fight for a first team spot. Even if Goodson loses his place in the starting XI, he’s a reliable option off the bench and as a spot-starter.
4. Michael Orozco Fiscal, 26, San Luis (Mexico)
While fans have yet to warm to his increased national team profile, Orozco Fiscal has been recalled twice since Klinsmann took over. That’s more than you can say for most names on this list. Because of the presence of players like Michael Parkhurst and Maurice Edu (players who can play in central defense), Orozco Fiscal’s unlikely to be called in for a competitive match soon, even if his August goal at Estadio Azteca made him a part of U.S. national team history.
5. Matt Besler, 25, Sporting Kansas City
Besler was also recalled to the squad for August’s friendly against Mexico, though he’s yet to earn his first cap. His continued strong performances for Sporting leave him on the cusp of an international breakthrough, with January shaping up as an important point for Besler’s national team future.
6. Omar Gonzalez, 24, LA Galaxy
Just over three months after his return from major knee surgery, Gonzalez has resumed his MLS dominance, though as it concerns his national team future, the pre-injury obstacles remain. His distribution must continue to improve, while his lack of foot speed will have to be overcome. Though Gonzalez has a large contingent of support, it’s unclear whether he’s destined to earn a spot or, like Chad Marshall and Michael Parkhurst, fail to translate MLS success into a consistent role with the national team.
7. Oguchi Onyewu, 30, Málaga (Spain, on loan from Sporting CP, Portugal)
“Gooch” has never been the same since suffering a knee injury in 2009. Since, he’s moved from Milan (Italy) to Sporting (Portugal), been loaned to Twente (Netherlands) and Málaga (Spain), and only managed to appear in 41 games. It’s possible regular playing time could see Onyewu return to his pre-injury form, though it’s unclear he’ll get that in Andalusia.
8. Heath Pearce, 28, New York Red Bulls
The last time Pearce adorned the stars and stripes, he was out left during the January camp. Since then club life has shifted him to central defense, a place which might be a better fit internationally. Pearce’s skillset offers Klinsmann something he seems to be looking for with a player like Orozco Fiscal; however, until we see Pearce back in the national team (potentially in January), it’s difficult to know if he should be listed here, at left back, or not at all.
9. George John, 25, FC Dallas
Nine may seem low for a player who was close to a English Premier League move 10 months ago, but the gap between nine and four isn’t as big as these rankings imply. It wouldn’t be too hard for John to surge back up this list, but having lost much of the momentum that made him a hot commodity a year ago, John’s fallen behind the likes of Orozco Fiscal and Besler.
10. Jay DeMerit, 32, Vancouver Whitecaps
DeMerit hasn’t been a factor in the national team under Klinsmann, and at 32 years old, time may be running out on the man who was a starter in South Africa. But as we’ve seen with the callups of Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon, Klinsmann’s willing to look to Major League Soccer for solutions (even if a general misconception says otherwise). Among MLS central defenders, few U.S.-eligibles have performed better than DeMerit. With experience at the international level, DeMerit would still be an in-a-pinch option.
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