Tony Beltran

U.S. Men’s National Team defense remains unsettled after Mexico draw

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One of the biggest question marks surrounding the U.S. Men’s National Team heading into this summer’s World Cup in Brazil concerns the team’s backline. Last night’s 2-2 draw with Mexico did little to shed light on this growing worry.

Jurgen Klinsmann came into last night’s match with a MLS stable of six defenders to choose from: Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Clarence Goodson, Tony Beltran, Michael Parkhurst and DeAndre Yedlin.

This meant more than a few key faces were missing, namely, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron and Hoffenheim’s Fabian Johnson, who remained with their clubs in Europe, Seattle’s Brad Evans, who is recovering from a calf injury sustained during a game against Toronto FC on March 15, and Puebla’s DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Orozco, who were not released by their club because the friendly did not fall on a FIFA international match date.

Klinsmann, therefore, opted to start a center-back partnership of Besler and Gonzalez, with Parkhurst on the left and Beltran on the right.

Gonzalez began the game strong, looking much like the player who impressed in the 0-0 draw with Mexico in 2013 and the 2-0 win over El Tri on September 10th. His second half, however, was a complete horror show as he lost track of Rafa Marquez on Mexico’s opener in the 49th minute and got caught ball-watching on Alan Pulido’s 68th minute equalizer.

Marquez’ goal highlighted Gonzalez’ inability to use the body he’s been blessed with. Despite his 6’5″, 205 lbs. frame, Gonzalez remains reluctant to bust through the opposition with Marquez easily evading him by running a pick around Kyle Beckerman and Juan Valenzuela. It was a simple move by a crafty veteran that Gonzalez should have had the strength to either blow straight through or the agility and wherewithal to skip around. Instead, he was left flat-footed, miles away from Marquez.

On Pulido’s strike, Gonzalez either fell asleep or gave up. Either way, he looked totally perplexed at how Pulido had gotten around him and silly with his hand held high in the air, begging for offside.

Besler, on the other hand, continues to impress despite his relative inexperience at the national team level. The smooth passing Sporting KC center-back is blessed with brilliant timing and, unlike his partner last night, is rapt with attention the entire time he’s on the pitch. In the first half Besler denied Pulido a clever chance and throughout the game showed the poise of a man ready to lead in Brazil.

The problem was that Besler’s night was cut short by Klinsmann’s decision to swap him out for Clarence Goodson. Like Besler, Goodson has a quiet confidence to him, no doubt the result of a 31-year-old with a diverse soccer CV. Goodson’s consistency is his best trait and while nothing about his performance last night will raise red flags, his similar style to Besler, minus perhaps an ounce of the tenaciousness, makes him feel like the third center-back option in Brazil.

The most likely partner for Besler come this summer is Cameron, who, despite playing right-back for his club, has the versatility (and the desire) to play in the center of the defense. Cameron’s speed, grit and experience make him feel like the right compliment to Belser but if this duo is to lead the Stars & Stripes in Brazil, they’ll need to begin fusing a proper partnership, and quick.

Parkhurst, starting at left-back, is another player who didn’t hurt his chances for Brazil. The Columbus Crew captain went 90 strong and generally held down his side of the field, which wasn’t easy considering the pouring forward of Mexico as the game matured. Yet given the presence of players like Johnson and Beasley, who remain the most likely left-backs to start in Brazil, Parkhurst is still a player on the bubble.

Beltran had some decent moments but was largely an inconsistent figure. His defending was average and Mexico looked to exploit him down the right side of the field. Yedlin was impressive when he came on for Beltran in the 71st minute, putting together a few trademark scampers up the pitch although his inexperience remains a worry. One for the future, no doubt, but as far as selection for this summer goes, Yedlin is another who will need a big spring to punch his ticket to Brazil.

As the USMNT enters its final prep phase for World Cup 2014, the time has come for Klinsmann to settle on a back four that can gel. Besler and Cameron feel like a solid combination, although Goodson could also do the job if Cameron is used as a right-back with Johnson on the left. If Cameron stays in the middle, Johnson on the left and Evans on the right could work, or, Beasley could go left with Johnson right.

Either way, Besler, Cameron and Johnson remain the three key pieces to the Nats back four. Who that fourth player is and what permutation the USMNT will ultimately feature in Brazil remains in the trusted hands of Klinsmann.

 

Right back: a cursed U.S. national team position?

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Once upon a time, not too long ago, left back was the problem child position around the U.S. national team. It was the position with issues, the personnel riddle that refused to be solved despite varied and valiant attempts.

It was like that for more than a decade, going back to a time so troubled that ol’ David Regis seemed like the answer.

David Regis was not the answer.

We’ve officially witnessed a changing of the guard, so to speak, during the current World Cup cycle. The position most likely to keep U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann up at night these days: U.S. right back.

(MORE: Chandler injured in Nuremberg match)

Timothy Chandler’s injury today is the latest reminder that every option at this position come with its own set of issues.  Let’s take a quick, fresh look at the candidates to play right back this summer in Brazil. (Or, in a couple of cases, guys who came close to candidacy over the last couple of years.)

  • Brad Evans: He’s the top choice at the moment, even though it’s not his spot for the Seattle Sounders. Playing one position for club and something different for country isn’t exactly unique. Then again, it’s not exactly ideal, either, now is it?
  • Geoff Cameron: The guess here is that Cameron, still doing well at the right back spot for Stoke, will be the starting right back when Klinsmann lines ‘em up against Ghana on June 16 at Estadio das Dunas in Natal. But for whatever reason (as we talked about earlier this week), Klinsmann has been reluctant to embrace the long-legged righty as a fullback, preferring that the player fight his way into central defensive candidacy for Stoke City. Again, it might be changing. Either way, this one may be the oddest duck in a lineup of odd duck personnel conundrums at the U.S. right back spot.
  • Steve Cherundolo: The longtime U.S. incumbent at right back slips further and further from World Cup candidacy with each inactive week that passes. He just can’t get past the injury issues that have taken him out of the Hannover lineup all year.
  • DeAndre Yedlin: Word is that Klinsmann really liked what he saw out of the young Sounders outside back during an eventful January camp. But it’s just too early for him. Might we see a big run from the guy during World Cups in 2018 and 2022? Could be! But for 2014? The guy remains pretty raw.
  • Tony Beltran: Just over one year ago he was among the guys performing pretty well in camp. Then came a rough night as a starter against Canada, and Beltran just hasn’t made up the lost ground since.
  • Fabian Johnson: A natural lefty, Johnson (pictured above) has started here and there out of necessity at right back for the United States. And could certainly do so again; he always looked OK as a right back. But when you use a guy who is “solid” or just “OK” on the right, but who could be potentially dynamic and even game-breaking on the other side of the field, you’ve left something pretty valuable on the table, haven’t you?
  • Michael Parkhurst: Steady performances (nothing sizzling, but a dependable defensive presence) on the right and on the left have put the Columbus Crew man in position for heavy roster consideration. When it comes to those 21st, 22nd and 23rd spots, versatility is pretty clutch. Of course, he’ll be playing center back for Gregg Berhalter at Crew Stadium, so that mucks things up a bit.
  • Timothy Chandler: If your poured the truth syrup over Klinsmann’s morning pancakes, he’d probably confess that the flakey young FC Nuremberg man is alive in this conversation today only because of the positional instability. Otherwise, he’d be dead as a box of hammers to Klinsmann and the U.S. staff. This latest news (today’s injury) adds yet another moving part to it all, at very best. At worst (well, depending on your definition of “worst,” which probably swings in this case on your feelings about Chandler), this more or less eliminates the guy for roster consideration.

MLS Cup positional edges: Looks at the defenses for Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City

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Early this year, when assessing and comparing the Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake defenses, any analyst worth his or her weight in Brazuca match balls would have handed the check mark to SKC and happily moved on.

Not that Real Salt Lake’s back line wasn’t worthy; Sporting KC’s tough and talented bunch was just that good. Sporting led the league in fewest goals allowed in 2013, a fact that surprised absolutely no one.

But after watching the playoff performance of RSL center backs Nat Borchers and Chris Schuler, absolutely dominant in series wins over Los Angeles and (especially) Portland, this should now be considered about as close as it can be. Both of the back lines to be showcased Saturday at ridiculously cold Sporting Park are MLS Cup worthy units, and then some.

It’s not just the center backs, either. For Kansas City, fullbacks Chance Myers and Seth Sinovic are tough, talented and always happy to scoot forward in support of the attack. Witness Sinovic’s big run up the left side and mighty finish that supplied his team the conference semifinal series game-winner against New England.

But those two have nothing on Tony Beltran (right) or Chris Wingert (left). Neither is quite national team material, but like Myers and Sinovic, they are just a small notch below international status, certainly blessed sufficiently in all the areas that make an upper echelon MLS outside back: one-on-one defending, passing out of the back, crossing and speed to move up and down the flank (in systems that demand it).

source:  But both defenses revolve around those imposing center backs. (Well, and goalkeepers that provide good information to keep the elements linked.) Aurelien Colilin is something close to unbeatable at times, setting his team’s physical tone with an edge that frequently walks the line. Central partner Matt Besler (pictured above) provides the balance, accomplishing his defensive mention with a sharp read and a savvy ability to slip into the right spots, and then distribute sensibly out of them. His gradual rise to U.S. national team starter has been inspirational.

Speaking of rises: Schuler’s terrific work on the back half of RSL’s surprisingly bright 2013 campaign has made the Rio Tinto faithful more or less forget how much they miss Jamison Olave, who was traded to New York a year back. Alongside Borchers (pictured above and to the left) the pair helped limit Portland to just two shots on goal in the second leg in Oregon, in a match where the Timbers were determined to attack with abandon. It was truly one of the best paired performances of the 2013 MLS post-season.

Weaknesses along the back lines? Not many. If we are picking nits, perhaps Collin’s volatile nature could get him in early yellow card trouble, forcing him to drag around the booking and recalibrate accordingly. Or perhaps the collective SKC desire to press high and get the outside backs forward when playing at home could leave the flanks vulnerable to a sharp-eyed playmaker and a fast forward. (Javier Morales and Robbie Findley, anyone?)

EDGE: dead even

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U.S. World Cup roster examination – Who is going to Brazil?: DEFENDERS

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Bruce Arena took eight defenders to World Cup 2006. Bob Bradley took just seven to South Africa four years later – although Ricardo Clark or Maurice Edu could both man a center back spot in a pinch.

Something interesting this year is that versatile men like Geoff Cameron and Fabian Johnson give U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann some similar latitude – although perhaps in reverse. Cameron plays right back for Stoke City, remember. Johnson spent most of his early appearances as an outside back, but has gradually drifted further forward.

He is better on the left, but who can also play right back (where he started in the World Cup clincher vs. Mexico). Either way, he’s on the charter.

Here we go:

DEFENDERS

(Estimated number of spots available: 7-8)

Start making plans, guys … you’re going to Brazil!: Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Geoff Cameron, DaMarcus Beasley.

Besler and Gonzalez are the central defensive pairing until further notice. Klinsmann says Cameron’s best spot is center back, and he did fine last week against Jamaica, even if it wasn’t the most worthy test.

source: Reuters

We will add Steve Cherundolo to the list as soon as he gets into a U.S. game again, maybe one of these November dates in Europe. Clearly, the right back spot remains an issue, which is why we’re still talking about a 34-year-old defender who has been a bit brittle recently, and who hasn’t been in a U.S. match in months.

Left back remains an issue as well, although Beasley has shown he can handle it adequately.

Clarence Goodson is very close to this list “Going to Brazil” list, proving time and again that he can be trusted when called upon. The problem for San Jose’s newly established central force is that John Brooks, the talented young German-American who was so solid in his recent debut, may have more upside. Brooks may get the opportunity over the coming months to lap the veteran Goodson.

If Goodson / Brooks take a spot, and if Cherundolo remains in the mix, then there may be just one little, itty bitty spot between Edgar Castillo, Brad Evans and Michael Parkhurst. All have had their moments, especially Castillo lately. But all have deficiencies, either in one-on-one defending (Castillo) or in ability to get up the flank consistently to impact the game (Evans and Parkhurst).

Where does that put Michael Orozco, scorer of a couple of pretty huge goals? Well, injuries do happen, but he appears to be behind four or perhaps even five center backs at the moment.

You might notice that Timothy Chandler’s name has disappeared from the conversation. It’s just a hunch, but I get the feeling that Klinsmann has finally moved on, just not convinced that this guy – who has lost his starting spot with FC Nürnberg is serious about having an international career.

On the bubble: Clarence Goodson, John Brooks, Steve Cherundolo, Brad Evans, Michael Parkhurst, Michael Orozco, Edgar Castillo

Still in the conversation … but just barely: Tony Beltran, Justin Morrow

(MORE: Where the goalkeepers of the U.S. player pool stand) 

(MORE: Where the goalkeepers of the U.S. player pool stand) 

(MORE: Where the midfielders in the U.S. player pool stand)

Huge win for Real Salt Lake before significant July personnel losses

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No team in MLS has a better surge going into July than Real Salt Lake … no, not even the Portland Timbers, although Caleb Porter’s team is doing wonderfully, too.

And it’s great for RSL supporters that their team has collected so many points lately, now unbeaten in nine straight (in all competitions) after today’s 1-0 win at Toronto.

Including two home matches in U.S. Open Cup play, Jason Kreis’ team is 6-0 in June with a goal-scoring margin of 17-2. Not too bad. Add it all up, and a team on a semi-rebuild for 2013 is top of the West going into the bulk of Round 18 matches tonight.  (Portland and Dallas, the closest pursuers, both own games in hand.)

Saturday’s win at BMO Field on Yordany Alvarez’s fashionable strike just before intermission was especially important for what is about to happen. Monday, four important RSL men will leave for Gold Cup duty.

Real Salt Lake captain Kyle Beckerman will join outside back Tony Beltran and goalkeeper Nick Rimando (pictured) for Jurgen Klinsmann’s United States side. And striker Alvaro Saborio will depart for Costa Rican duty.

(MORE: Beckerman a natural for captain or this U.S. group)

Rimando and Beckerman are likely starters for the United States, which plays a friendly against Guatemala next week in San Diego, then launches Gold Cup play four nights later in Portland against Belize. (The United States schedule is here.)

With Gold Cup quarterfinals set for July 20 and 21, and the tournament playing out over the next week from there, the three are sure to miss three MLS matches and quite likely all four set for July.

Here is Alvarez’s important game-winner Saturday at BMO Field near downtown Toronto:

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