Ahead of the final USMNT World Cup qualifiers, the center back pool faces an uncertain situation

The next three games for the United States Men’s National Team will determine their fate when it comes to if they will be back in the World Cup or once again watching from home. At the very least, it will decide if they will play in the World Cup playoff by finishing 4th in the Octo. In order to meet that minimum expectation, the team will need three points to book their ticket to the play-in match.

Obviously, the ideal scenario would be qualifying directly. With a home match against Panama sandwiched between away games in Mexico and Costa Rica, the team will have to dig deep to get points outside of the USA. This comes as goals have been hard to come by for the team. With three games left, the Stars and Stripes have scored one or less goals in seven of 11 games. The good news is that the backline has stayed strong allowing only seven goals in those 11 games.

That said, the center back selections that Gregg Berhalter has made heading into the final three matches have come under scrutiny. Into the roster are Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, Miles Robinson, James Sands, and Walker Zimmerman. Notably absent are John Brooks and Chris Richards, the later of which is nursing an ankle injury.

Replacing them are Long, Sands, and Palmer-Brown, three players with limited time on the National Team this qualification cycle. Sands and Palmer-Brown have been making significant progress in the last year. Sands recently transferred to Rangers and won both MLS Cup and the Gold Cup in 2021. He also offers versatility in that he can line up at center back or defensive midfield. Meanwhile, Palmer-Brown seems to have settled with Ligue 1 side Troyes having solidified a starting role in France.

Finally, Aaron Long is making his return to the USMNT after missing out on most of the 2021 MLS season after tearing his achilles. His return from the serious injury has been swift and he’s re-established himself as a starter for the New York Red Bulls in short order. This is welcome news as Long has been one of the top defenders in MLS since breaking through with New York in 2017. That he’s re-established his role as a starter on the team that allowed the fewest goals in the league last year is also reassuring .

Long’s rehab was helped by being included in two USMNT camps held in December and January. This was a chance he otherwise would not have had because MLS was in its offseason, so rather than training alone, he had higher intensity sessions to prepare for the MLS preseason. This was a good move on the part of Gregg Berhalter and at least helped get a player fit for the MLS season or at best got him ready should he be needed for competitive qualifying matches.

The inclusion of Long on the team seems to come at the expense of John Brooks who seems to have fallen out of favor with Berhalter. However, Long is a solid player on his own merit regardless of Berhalter’s opinion of him. After breaking through with New York, Long won the MLS Defender of the Year award in 2018. MLS gets its fair share of disrespect for having poor defending, but winning the award is an impressive feat given that the league incentivizes teams to pour money into attacking players, making games more exciting and less defensive.

In addition, Liverpool was interested in bringing Long in due to injuries to their squad last year. Ultimately, the move didn’t go through because Long is something of a victim of his own success in MLS. He’s in a type of contract purgatory that some USMNT players in the league find themselves in where a transfer would net a decent sum but, since MLS is a single-entity franchise system, would not be fully paid to their club. As a result, Long is somewhat “stuck” in MLS until he is out of contract or NYRB decides to move him even if they don’t get the full transfer amount.

Meanwhile, John Brooks has fallen out of favor with not only Berhalter, but with his club Wolfsburg. Both Brooks and the team have mutually agreed not to negotiate a new contract for the player when it expires at the end of the season. After being left off of the roster for the March qualifiers, Brooks said, “Months ago, I accepted responsibility for my play & the decision that kept me off a roster.” He’s obviously hoping to come back, saying “I accept this as the coach’s decision, but I won’t accept that I can’t change this before the final World Cup roster selections. There should be no questions about my desire to play for this team. My plan is to fight as hard as I can to make it back to the [USMNT]”according to ESPN.

For his part, Berhalter told reporters that “This is what we thing to do in this window. It doesn’t determine his future with the national team. And I think that’s a very important distinction.” He went on to say, “So we did what we thought was best for this window in a way we want to play and sometimes we leave players out, sometimes we bring them in based on our opponents and based on what we’re trying to do in this window.” While Long seems like a capable option, Brooks seems to have regained his form and Berhalter has made what might be a fateful choice.

However, elsewhere on the roster Miles Robinson has experienced a rocky start to the 2022 MLS season. In three games with Atlanta United, Robinson has earned a red card and given up a penalty. It’s eerily reminiscent of his lackluster showing with his club prior to his breakout season in 2019.

With three huge games in what boils down to a must get three points situation, the USMNT will be relying on its defending once again. While there was solidity in that aspect of the team this cycle, the backline seems less certain headed into the last matches and will need to rise to the occasion to ensure World Cup qualification.

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