Can U.S. Soccer Use Inexperience at Center-Back to Its World Cup Advantage?

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Can U.S. Soccer Use Inexperience at Center-Back to Its World Cup Advantage?
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HARRISON, N.J. — "Experience is a big thing," Tim Howard said into a smattering of reporters hoping for quotation gold after the United States defeated Turkey 2-1 in the second of three friendlies before heading to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.

"Experience also has baggage. So we don't have that baggage."

It's easy to take that quote—absolute gold, by the way—and make it about Landon Donovan. But maybe, just maybe, Howard's words were more about Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu and Clarence Goodson and Jay DeMerit and the old way the U.S. national team played defense in front of him.

There is very little experience in front of Howard now, with Geoff Cameron, a converted center-back who has more caps at midfield or right-back than in the center of the defense during his international career, taking a leadership role on the back line.

"Jurgen [Klinsmann] wants me to be a leader back there," Cameron told me after the match, "and I'm trying to step into my role and use my experience and kind of be demanding, talking and communicating on the field, trying to make sure everybody is switched on all the time."

Cameron was paired with Matt Besler during the first half and youngster John Brooks in the second half. Omar Gonzalez, who played part of the match against Azerbaijan, did not play versus Turkey but should see time against Nigeria.

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If there is one thing we know for sure after two matches leading into Brazil, it's that Cameron is the voice of the back line. It's a role he relishes.

"The whole goal is making sure that everybody is working together as one," Cameron said after the match. "And if one guy is not doing his job and is not focused, then it hurts the team. If we are all on the same page, it doesn't matter who is out and who steps in."

It does matter, because the inexperience that Howard may be spinning June 1 into a positive could be the U.S. team's undoing June 16 when it faces Ghana.

We all remember Ghana, right? The team that knocked the United States out of how many World Cups in a row? The team that split two slow, aging center-backs right down the gut in extra time, torching Bocanegra and DeMerit for the goal that still, to this day, has to haunt the U.S. team.

Or does it? None of those players, other than Howard, are here for this World Cup. So while the back line is incredibly inexperienced, these defenders don't have to live with the memory of giving up that goal. They don't go into this Ghana match with any baggage at all.

Klinsmann likes what he sees with his center-backs so much that he employed a wildly offensive system against Turkey, pushing a wing full-back into the offensive zone time and time again.

The maneuver led to the first goal for the United States, as Fabian Johnson's run down the right flank was rewarded with a beautiful give-and-go with Michael Bradley.

The second goal, scored on a tap-in by Clint Dempsey, was set up after a run down the left side was finished with a cross from Timmy Chandler.

Chandler was less successful than Johnson at being able to manage both pushing forward with defensive responsibilities. At times, Chandler's excursions up the field put the center-backs under intense pressure. Almost every time, they rose to that challenge against Turkey.

"Overall, the partnership of the center-backs is just fine-tuning every day better and getting them stronger," Klinsmann told the media after the match. "Physically, they're becoming more dominant, which is very important in that role, and I wish the next step is they become more vocal."

We know the center-backs lack experience. The question with one match left before heading to Brazil is simple: Which of the inexperienced center-backs instills the most confidence in Howard, Cameron and, most importantly, Klinsmann?

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By the sound of it, that answer is Besler. Klinsmann said he played "an outstanding first half," while Cameron admitted that he and Besler have a good partnership. When asked about the second half with Brooks, Cameron was less effusive, saying, "We switched things up in the second half and there were a few mental mistakes, but we recovered well and worked together, collectively, as a team."

Not exactly a ringing endorsement for the youngster, is it? The thing is, after an early mistake where Brooks didn't close down on a defender, with Cameron yelling at him to do just that, Brooks actually looked really good for the first time in a U.S. jersey.

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He may not be World Cup-ready, but for the first time we got to see what made Klinsmann pick Brooks over someone safer, like a World Cup veteran in Goodson.

"His performance today just confirmed what we see in his training sessions," Klinsmann said of Brooks. "There is a young man growing into a bigger, bigger role. He's feeling more a part of this whole group."

While Cameron may feel more secure next to Besler, from my vantage point on press row, it was Brooks who had the stronger match.

His footwork is better, he's stronger on balls in the air and, other than a few early communication issues, he seemed to track back better than Besler when Chandler got caught up too far on the flank. Cameron did praise Brooks when asked, saying, "He's confident. He's calm on the ball. He's a good player."

Brooks showed more and more of that as the game went on. With nerves subsiding, Brooks finally began to show the player we may see more of than anyone expected in Brazil.

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Minutes before the Turkey goal—that was clearly Chandler's fault despite the shot going off Cameron's hand to set up the penalty kick—Chandler had a horrible pass back that was intended for Brooks but was intercepted by the Turkish attack. Rather than face the offensive player one-on-one, Brooks did the smart thing. He fouled the guy.

It was a professional foul, to say the least, not malicious or severe in nature but professional. Smart and well-timed. It probably saved a goal. It almost definitely saved a breakaway.

It was the type of foul that makes you wonder why Bocanegra or DeMerit didn't foul Asamoah Gyan four years ago. Why would you let the offense beat you on a breakaway when you can foul the guy and live another day?

Ah, baggage.

Maybe Howard is right. It's hard to hold on to the pain of four years ago. Covering this World Cup team, I'm still feeling the pain of the loss four years ago.

Yet for a guy like Brooks, who has played fewer than two full games with the U.S. national team, he doesn't have to hold on. Another strong showing against Nigeria, and he might be the best option to help all of us let go. 

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