Berhalter’s Selections: Shouldn’t a Defender Know Better?

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After Gregg Berhalter announced his roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica and Mexico last week, I have finally been able to roll my eyes forward again from the back of my head, where they have been stuck wondering why he chose some of the players that he did.

I’m sure all of you have seen the roster and although some of you will be happy with his selection of the 25 players, while some of you are probably in WTF mode, like me. However, after a lot of thought, maybe it’s not all bad. Some things were out of his hands.

Case in point, Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest being left out is a no brainer.  Why call up players who are injured and cannot play? Also, Dest has a new coach at Barcelona to impress, and he’s got a couple weeks head start on his teammates who were healthy enough to travel. Good on ya Greg! 

The goalkeepers are also a trio of the most worthy ones, with Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson and Matt Turner given the thumbs up and the ticket to Cincinnati.  Admittedly, I do miss Ethan Horvath in the line-up however; leaving Club Brugge’s bench in the summer for what he hoped would be a starting job at Nottingham Forest turned out to be just another splinter-collecting gig for his backside.  He’s just killing his chances at getting back into the team, and his long-shot chance of getting on the plane to Qatar might be gone.

The list of defenders is where I begin to strongly question the Jersey coach’s selections and, more importantly non-selections. Gregg spent his long playing career as a defender, so this is where one would expect him to get things right.

For some reason, I have been hearing people moaning about the call up of a pair of guys who play in Belgium – Sam Vines with Royal Antwerp and Mark McKenzie with Belgian Cup winners, KRC Genk.  I live in Belgium and see enough of the competition on a week-to-week basis to know what a tough league this is; after all, this it the league that gave birth to Romelu Lukaku. So, defenders playing in the Pro League have to be at their best each and every time they step onto the field.

Notice the key phrase: playing in the Pro League.

Both of these guys are 22 years old, have a lot of upside, and both have also been capped eight times for the Nats, with Vines scoring against Haiti in last summer’s Gold Cup.  But I did write, “defenders playing in the Pro League” and I stress the word “playing.”  Well, one of these two guys really hasn’t been playing much for his team.

McKenzie, the former Philadelphia Union man, never got off the bench for Genk’s last game against Cercle Brugge, their Europa League draw against West Ham United or their thrashing of Zulte Waregem on Halloween. Put simply, he’s not playing. If nothing else, he’ll be well rested when he suits up for the USA.

Vines, on the other hand, has finally been seeing some minutes for Antwerp after a shorter-than-expected absence from injury.  Over the weekend against Anderlecht, he played the full 90 minutes, just as he did when Turkish side Fenerbahce thrashed the Antwerpers 3-0 in Belgium.  He was also in the line-up against Cercle Brugge.  To say he put in solid performances, however, would be stretching it a bit.  But to be fair, he is “playing,” but is it well enough for a call up, particularly in the most difficult and critical window so far of the qualifying campaign?

The coach thinks so. I need convincing.

The bigger question though is, where is John Brooks?  Sure, he was shaky in his last couple of outings in his USA uniform but he’s a senior, veteran player and we don’t have many of those. Not only has John Brooks successfully navigated a World Cup qualifying campaign, but he actually scored in the big show. He’s been there, he’s a leader and a veteran, and his presence is necessary for such a young squad.

Brooks has been going from strength to strength with his club team, Wolfsburg as well.  He is a regular starter for the Bundesliga team, which has won three in a row now and is fourth in one of the world’s best leagues.  And how many of the current squad have World Cup experience?

The coach blamed his non-selection on how he performed the last time out for the USA. Yes, he had a couple of games to forget, but that was back in September. He didn’t take part in October due to injury. So one would believe that the USA staff haven’t really been paying attention to his play during the past month or so. Or that Gregg holds a long grudge….too long.

Brooks isn’t the only veteran defender missing, who could be a powerful leader from the locker room and a fully capable player on the field. Fulham’s Tim Ream is a very sturdy and aggressive defender who leaves everything on the field.  More importantly, he is the definition of a leader, who pushes his teammates to play with every bit of heart and intensity that he does. Where is he?  Even if he isn’t worthy of starting, he brings leadership to the team and seems to be someone that would be appreciated in the locker room and on the training field.

Thinking about it, Brooks and Ream are slowly fitting the profile of what Berhalter accomplished as a player during his veteran years. They are technically capable, even if not spectacular central defenders, settled well at the particular level of play where they landed. They are solid leaders, sometimes the captains of their teams. Gregg knows the value of players like Brooks and Ream because he was one of them. The fact that he sees no need for either of them is baffling.

Apart from that, Matt Miazga has been doing well recently during his, what, third or fourth or hundredth loan stint away from Chelsea.  He played for Anderlecht last season and had a solid season. Recently, he has been doing well in La Liga for Alaves, although the team isn’t really very good due to the fact that they have troubles scoring goals.  Matt has been on the bench the last couple games and the team has been scoring but really, did the attackers scoring or not scoring have anything to do with him?  So Gregg, where is Matt?  How do you leave out a fellow Jersey boy?

That’s pretty much it. I’m just not in total agreement with the coach and hey, I’m from Jersey too!

His midfield selection; well, what is available and quite frankly obvious for selection is pretty much what will be available for the Mexico and Jamaica games. My only quasi-complaint is Sebastian Lletget. He’s one of your typical MLS scrubs who would get called back time and time again because hey, he’s one of Gregg’s boys. The Galaxy guy is 29 now and he isn’t getting any better. If he was a carton of milk, you’d look at his sell by date and think, hmmm, should I pour some in my coffee or just pour it down the sink? Apparently Gregg loves that sour cup of coffee in the morning.

And of course the attack is what we knowingly lack, so putting all the weight and pressure on an 18-year-old with four caps is asking a lot. Young Ricardo Pepi doesn’t seem to be fazed by being thrown in at the deep end however. Unfortunately the soccer gods haven’t blessed the USA with our fair share of decent strikers, so we’re once again pinning our hopes on a guy who still be too young to sip the champagne in the locker room if the team qualifies.

Like many other USA fans, I’m hoping that Tim Weah hurries up and finds his form. The OSC Lille man showed so much potential but he is one of those guys who has been unlucky with injuries to the point that it risks becoming the defining factor in his career. Nevertheless, I’m very optimistic regarding the Liberian President’s little boy. He seems to have been around for a while but he is still only 21 years old, which means that time is on his side. Sixteen caps with just one goal isn’t much to brag about though. I was in Sevilla last week to see him play for Lille in the Champions League and although he didn’t score or set the field on fire, I did like what I saw.

So where do we stand?

The USMNT goes up against Mexico on Cincinnati, Ohio soil on Friday and then sails off into the Caribbean to take on Jamaica on Tuesday. By Tuesday night we’ll all know if Gregg got it right or if there will be calls yet again for the coach’s head. Stay tuned!


Michael Adubato

The old man of Yanks-Abroad, having been around since the very beginning in 2004, Known as the resident Belgian expert since that’s where he has lived for a couple of decades. Over the years he has interviewed Nats such as Kasey Keller, Brian McBride, Oguchi Onyewu, Jozy Altidore and Tim Weah, to name a few. When not working the day job, he can often be found in stadiums around Europe, watching games from the top flight to the lower leagues. To prove that he is not just a pretty face, Mike received a Bachelor’s Degree from the University of Maryland and a Masters from the University of Oklahoma. Boomer Sooner! On a non-soccer note, Adubato has just released a book of poetry from his travels, Missing the Exit, published by Broken Keys Publishing in Ottawa, Canada. So that must make him the YA poet laureate! You can grab your copy on, order online and pick it up and Barnes & Noble or get an e-copy at various outlets.

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