The last six months haven’t been very kind to American soccer players in Europe. Clint Dempsey, Maurice Edu, and Michael Bradley head back across the Atlantic in the opposite direction to the warm, welcoming bosom of MLS. Jozy Altidore is mired in one of the all-time seasons to forget at Sunderland. Players like Brad Guzan and Fabian Johnson grind out professional performances for mid-table clubs in England and Germany, while countless other toil in anonymity in backwaters across the continent.
Bright spots for Americans abroad include Tim Howard helping put Everton on the precipice of Champions League qualification, Aron Jóhannsson scoring goal-after-goal for AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie and Geoff Cameron’s steady, workmanlike showing for Stoke City.
Cameron has played all over for the United States, but exclusively at right back for his club
It’s worth highlighting the efforts of Cameron, the last man standing from Stoke’s brief turn as the EPL’s version of Team America. The aforementioned Edu is now with the Philadelphia Union while Brek Shea will be somewhere else come the summer after failing to impress at his parent club, and then embarrassing himself during his loan stint at Barnsley. Cameron deserves credit for retaining his place in the Stoke first team despite the club parting ways with Tony Pulis and replacing him with Mark Hughes.
At Stoke, Cameron is second behind club captain Ryan Shawcross in appearances across all competitions this year with 37. Right backs, unless they score a rare goal or make a mistake, don’t garner too much of the limelight, but Cameron’s been very solid at the Britannia Stadium. While he won’t end up on any EPL Best XI lists next month, the 28-year-old Rhode Island native looks like he might be able to carve out a nice, Carlos Bocanegra-like career abroad.
With the World Cup rapidly approaching, the important question to ask is where should Cameron be deployed on the field under Jurgen Klinsmann and the National Team? In qualifying, Cameron played in seven matches at center back, four in central midfield and two at right back — where he’s played exclusively at the club level this year.
The World Cup group opponents are dangerous on the left wing
Right back is a spot on the field where the U.S. needs to focus, given Group G opponents Ghana, Portugal and Germany. Although soccer defending isn’t entirely about 1-on-1 matchups, each of the Americans’ three opponents have a world-class player warranting attention at left wing/left midfield.
Ghana’s lineup includes Juventus left midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah or Chelsea’s on-loan winger Christian Atsu — while neither are remotely household names, they’re quality players with power and pace. Germany can deploy any of these world class players: Marco Reus, Mario Götze, Lukas Podolski, Andre Schürrle, or, even Julian Draxler, in a wide-left attacking position. Each of those players could carve holes through the U.S. defense either passing through gaps or blazing past their marker.
And, right, Portugal has a some guy named Cristiano Ronaldo operating on the left side of the field.
This isn’t CONCACAF, anymore.
Following the U.S.’s 2-2 draw with Mexico earlier this month the Americans’ (default) central defensive pairing of Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler was placed under the microscope — particularly Gonzalez. The knee-jerk solution is to move Cameron back into the middle and figure out his partner. In turn, this might patch over one problem, but opens up a hole at right back. It’s worth remembering Portugal doesn’t exactly have a “world class” central striker, unless Ronaldo drifts into the middle, while Germany is still likely to use Miroslav Klose, who at 35 can still score but is less of a threat outside the penalty box.
Cameron might be the best option at several positions, but keep him at right back
The U.S. right back candidates behind Cameron, now that longtime stalwart Steve Cherundolo has officially retired, include Brad Evans (himself a central midfielder with Seattle), Michael Parkhurst and Fabian Johnson. Klinsmann also used guys like Michael Orozco Fiscal and Tony Beltran at right back in 2013. The German-born coach could also include someone like Seattle’s promising youngster DeAndre Yedlin, although the thought of some of these guys trying to keep Ronaldo in check is more terrifying than the U.S. Airways Twitter account.
Johnson will likely find a place in the starting XI, but is considered more of an attacking presence than a defending one. Parkhurst might have some familiarity with the German opponents after spending time, briefly, with FC Augsburg, but that’s a tenuous argument for his merits and the same case could be made for Johnson, who’s currently at Hoffenheim.
It’s fairly obvious that using Cameron to plug a hole in the middle of defense creates a similarly large one on the right. Evans acquitted himself quite well during the Gold Cup and scored a massively important stoppage-time goal vs. Jamaica, but going into the World Cup with him as a starter — given the opposition — doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Nor, if we’re all being honest, does the entire state of the U.S. defense. Cameron is probably the best Klinsmann has at his disposal but he can only play one spot, barring cloning technology or a formerly-unknown world-class center back who receives fast-track U.S. citizenship.
This doesn’t even consider the idea that the Bradley-Cameron central midfield is the best available for the U.S. This pairing would allow Bradley more chances to bomb forward and finish movements, leaving Cameron to do the dirty work instead of, say, Jermaine Jones or Kyle Beckerman. Cameron’s skill — remember the pass to set up Eddie Johnson last year vs. Panama — makes him more well-rounded than we think.
It’s easy to argue that Cameron might be the team’s best option at right back and centerback, as well as one of its better options in central midfield. Given how important right back will be in the Group Stage in Brazil, Klinsmann probably cannot afford to turn the solution to the issues in the center of defense into a potentially larger calamity on the right.