2018 World Cup Qualifying, Featured, June 2017

US Continue to Show Glaring Defensive Weakness, and it Can’t be Fixed Overnight

Geoff Cameron and John Brooks are high-level CBs. But the pair have developed a startling weakness in the air.

Kyle Bonn

John Brooks and Geoff Cameron, are, at the moment, the clear starters for the United States at central defense. Both have proven they are the best choice in the heart of defense with their superior tackling abilities and skill with the ball at their feet.

Unfortunately, both have developed a consistent vulnerability, and teams are beginning to exploit it.

Against Trinidad & Tobago, the opposition clearly made an effort to get the ball out wide and send in crosses rather than work through the middle. Evidencing this, the Soca Warriors, despite holding a significant possessional disadvantage, nearly matched the United States in crosses attempted (12 for T&T, 13 for the United States). Dennis Lawrence’s side knew the strength of the US defense was its organization, and its weakness was the air.

It’s odd to think that a defensive partnership of 6’4” and 6’3” would struggle so mightily to deal with long deliveries through the air and aerial 50/50s, but that’s precisely what’s developed for a large enough sample size of late to call it a problem.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, it doesn’t appear to be an issue of physicality or even technique. The problem appears to center on horrific positioning and stunning momentary lapses in concentration, astonishing for two players of that level of quality and extremely problematic as the US head into qualifiers against better teams in Mexico Sunday night and Costa Rica Labor Day weekend. As we saw last evening, against Hex basement-dwellers Trinidad & Tobago, the issues were there in plain sight, for all future opponents to see.

Just past the half-hour mark, lethal striker Kenwyne Jones somehow slipped completely free from all defenders and should have scored, but instead crashed his header off the crossbar. Upon further review of the play, John Brooks allowed the biggest aerial threat in the opposition’s squad to sneak behind him and get free on goal. Brooks shuts off for a half-second, and is unable to recover.

Then, minutes before the halftime whistle, Trinidad nearly struck again, although the chance wasn’t as gilt-edged as the one Jones missed. Geoff Cameron ends up in no-man’s land in front of Kenwyne Jones, and as we see so often with both he and Brooks, he’s forced to back-pedel to defend the cross. To be fair, it doesn’t help that DeAndre Yedlin – who is marking the cross’s eventual target in Kevin Molino – is thoroughly beat in the air- but Molino has immense quality and sometimes, the opponent wins. Nonetheless, Cameron is forced backwards by a cross, leaving him vulnerable on the jump, and Molino is able to lunge onto the cross, but misses it ever so slightly and sails it over the bar.

These are just two examples in a multitude of regrettable moments for the duo, who both have just signed new and lucrative contracts for well-regarded European clubs.

Set-pieces have exposed them further, and while it didn’t prove a factor on Thursday night with Trinidad & Tobago only earning one free-kick in the attacking third, it proved the difference between an encouraging win and disappointing draw in the friendly against Venezuela last Saturday.

Brooks – guilty again – is sucked between two attackers. It appears at first he means to mark Jose Manuel Velazquez, putting a hand on his chest, but as the ball is played back out momentarily on the failed clearance, he slowly drifts forward. When the ball is sent back in, Brooks ends up closer to Salomon Rondon, leaving Velazquez empty behind him. There’s clear miscommunication between Brooks and Fabian Johnson on who to mark, and the result is Velazquez running free to score the opening goal.

Time and again, deliveries sent into a crowded US box have found a mark over the heads of out-of-position defenders. This isn’t something that Bruce Arena can fix in a short period of time. The communication needs to improve, and should. But while marking assignments can be given more enthusiastically, defensive positioning is something a center-back must absorb over time. A feel for a crowded box is only someone with positive instincts can attain.

Should Cameron and Brooks – still the clearly preferred starters- continue to harm the United States with big chances for the enemy, Arena will be forced to make a change. He could bring in a seasoned but uninspiring replacement in Omar Gonzalez, or he could roll the dice with less experienced talents like Matt Hedges, who is a brilliant positional defender, or the technically-sound Walker Zimmerman, provided they earn a spot on the training ground.

With Sunday’s showdown against Mexico closing fast, this pair must do its best to eliminate the mental mistakes that will no doubt cost the USMNT dearly against a far more ruthless foe.

Kyle Bonn has written frequently for The Yanks Are Coming. His work has been featured on a variety of websites, including NBC Sports. Follow him on Twitter @the_bonnfire.