When it comes to the US men's national team's defense, there is some sense of security in having veterans Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu around to play key roles in Jurgen Klinsmann's plans for the upcoming year.
THREE TO TRUST
Veterans Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and Oguchi Onyewu will all be into their 30s coming the 2014 World Cup.
Bocanegra Cherundolo Onyewu Age 32 32 29 Caps 100 78 62 Goals 12 2 6 Statistics source US Soccer (USSoccer.com)
More: USA | MLS All three have played integral roles with the national team for the better part of the last six years, a span that has included two World Cups. However, as important as all three veterans have been, part of the reason they are still key starters is because there has yet to be a generation of defenders step up to stake claims to their roles.
That would not normally be a concern, especially considering Cherundolo, Bocanegra and Onyewu are all still playing at a high level, but with the 2014 World Cup fast approaching and the three veteran defensive stalwarts set to be on the wrong side of 30 come Brazil, it is clear that one of Klinsmann's priorities is finding the next generation of defenders who can step in take on starting roles.
The United States has seen veteran defenders play key roles in past World Cups, but never has it had more than one. In 1998, the Americans had a then-36-year-old Thomas Dooley to provide leadership and quality. In 2002, a 31-year-old Tony Sanneh was the most impressive American defender at the World Cup. In 2006, Eddie Pope was 32 and showing signs of age that ultimately led him to retire from the national team soon after. The 2010 World Cup team had Jay Demerit, who was still relatively young at 30 in South Africa, but who, at times, looked a step slow.
The aforementioned list shows that, at times, having an older starting defender at the World Cup isn't necessarily a detriment, but as we have seen throughout the years, having a defense made of players in their primes is key for a team hoping to enjoy World Cup success.
That means having Cherundolo and Bocanegra as 35-year olds and Onyewu as a 32-year old isn't likely to be the recipe for defensive success in Brazil.
This is the quandary Klinsmann finds himself in. His veteran defenders are still clearly his best options, and there just haven't been many blue-chip defensive prospects emerge in recent years to pose legitimate challenges to their starting roles. The reality is only Timmy Chandler, who looks like the clear-cut successor to Cherundolo's right back spot, has stepped forward as a viable defensive option for 2014.
One of the most important jobs Klinsmann will have in 2012 is identifying young defensive talent worthy of being integrated into the national set-up soon. There is definitely young defensive talent worthy of being scouted, and with two and a half years between now and the 2014 World Cup, there is still time for players to blossom into national team difference makers.
Here are just some of the defensive options in the pool who could emerge as candidates to help replace the old guard on the U.S. back-line in the 2014 World Cup cycle:
A midfielder by trade, his size, athleticism and technical ability led Houston head coach Dom Kinnear to move him to central defense in 2009. The result was Cameron enjoying an MLS Best XI season. Cameron returned to central defense in the latter part of this season, a move that was key to Houston's run to the MLS Cup Final.
Though he's still learning the intricacies of the centerback position, Cameron has all the tools to be the perfect fit for what Klinsmann is looking for in a central defender. He will be 28 during the 2014 World Cup.
The best defender in MLS in 2011, Gonzalez is an ever-improving giant of a centerback who has already gotten some looks with the US national team, though not as many as his fans would have liked at this point. There are still questions about his quickness and technical ability being good enough for the international level, but there is no denying the fact that he has improved exponentially over the past two years and should be one of the first MLS defenders Klinsmann calls into US camp come January.
Enjoyed a breakout 2011 season that saw him emerge as one of the best defenders in MLS, as well as a transfer target for European clubs. Much like Gonzalez, John faces a stigma of not being considered the fastest or most technical player, but his technical quality is actually an underrated strength that isn't utilized nearly enough with FC Dallas. He has yet to receive a national team call-up, but seems a safe bet to be brought into the January camp.
A player who coaches and scouts rave about because of his unmatched passing ability from the centerback position, Ream saw his stock take a bit hit this year after a mistake-filled season with the New York Red Bulls and some shaky performances with the US national team. As much as he's criticized by fans because of all those mistakes, scouts still love him, and Klinsmann is sure to make him a pool player once he tightens up his defending.
Sidelined in recent months by injury, Lichaj should not be forgotten as a long-term fullback option. He has shown an ability to play both right back and left back and is the most likely option to play opposite Tim Chandler.
An 18-year-old left back currently playing for Norwegian side Molde, Cunningham is one of the more exciting young prospects in the pool, though he is still settling in as a pro. The lack of natural left backs in the national team pool could help Cunningham make an impact sooner than expected, though he will first have to impress on the US Under-23 national team.
While there are still more than two years to go before the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann has to know he must look to find some younger defensive options. Cherundolo, Bocanegra and Onyewu should help buy him some time in 2012, but it won't be long before those three long-time defensive stalwarts are just too old and too ineffective to help the United States compete against the world's elite.