The recurring theme that has haunted the United States men's national team over the last few years reared its ugly head once again on Monday night at Sporting Park.
For the first 45 minutes of the 1-1 draw versus Panama, the back four of Timmy Chandler, Ventura Alvarado, John Brooks and Fabian Johnson struggled to deal with the pressure brought forth by Panama in the final Group A match of the competition. ESPN's Paul Carr noted the result marked only the fourth time in 34 Gold Cup group games in which the USMNT didn't win:
After the whistle blew on the first half, the USMNT faced its first deficit of the tournament thanks to a defensive lapse, and the duo of Brooks and Chandler were sitting on yellows.
Although it did recover a bit from their brutal first half with a decent second 45 minutes, the concern about the USMNT's defending entering the knockout stage of the Gold Cup is the biggest issue facing one of the top sides in CONCACAF.
The rough outing at the back began early in the match as Brooks and Alvarado, who both started the first match of the Gold Cup against Honduras, looked shaky next to each other against a Panama side searching for a result and revenge from the 2013 Gold Cup Final as well as the last round of World Cup qualifying. Panama head coach Hernan Dario Gomez said after the match he never thought the USMNT was the superior team, per ESPN's Jeff Carlisle:
In the 16th minute, things went from bad to worse for Brooks as he picked up a yellow card on a Panama counter. The foul committed by Brooks cost him a spot in the quarterfinal match against an undetermined opponent on Saturday.
The rookie mistakes continued into the 34th minute, when Panama opened the scoring through Blas Perez. The FC Dallas man easily drifted in front of goal thanks to an opening created by Brooks and Chandler in the middle of the box. In the buildup to the strike, Alvarado was easily beaten by Luis Tejada on the right edge of the penalty area.
The poor one-versus-one defending from Alvarado and the gap left open by his center back partner brought up the questions USMNT fans have asked countless times before about their young defense. With other talented and capable players in the talent pool, it is worth asking why manager Jurgen Klinsmann has left the young duo out on the field despite its struggles.
To compound the issue further, Chandler didn't exactly shine on the right side of the back four, which is the only thing consistent about the Eintracht Frankfurt man's play recently for the Yanks.
The main reason for the added depth to the conversation after Monday night's draw is the reinforcements allowed by CONCACAF to each side at the conclusion of the knockout round. Although Tim Ream, Omar Gonzalez and Greg Garza are on the current roster, Klinsmann could opt to bring in Matt Besler or DaMarcus Beasley to secure the back line.
Both Besler and Beasley seem like viable options in the back four, but who they replace makes the situation tougher for Klinsmann. Since Brooks, Alvarado and Chandler are clearly favored by the manager, Ream, Gonzalez or the sturdy Brad Evans would likely depart the 23-man squad.
Because Brooks is suspended for Saturday's quarterfinal match in Baltimore, Besler should join up with the USMNT in order to bring an experienced international hand to the back. As for Beasley, his move to the matchday roster might not happen since Klinsmann has a few full backs capable of replacing Chandler from within.
Besler and Ream are both left center backs, while Gonzalez lines up on the right. If the Sporting Kansas City defender earns a call-up, Ream might be sent packing. That would mean Besler would start next to either Gonzalez or Alvarado in the middle of defense.
Gonzalez and Besler were once seen as the Yanks' top center back pairing, but that thought process has made way for younger players to emerge in the starting 11. As ESPN's Doug McIntyre pointed out, the demise of the former first-choice duo may not have been as big as once imagined:
Besler is one of the better defenders in Major League Soccer, while Gonzalez has arguably been the best center back in the league in 2015. Despite their form at the back, both players have been relegated to the bench or off the roster in favor of Klinsmann's new preferred pairing. With Brooks out and Alvarado far from excellent on Monday, maybe we could see a shift in thinking from Klinsmann in order to bring back some much-needed consistency to the position. The Kansas City Star's Sam McDowell noted this remark from the U.S. coach:
As for the Chandler situation at right back, he looks out of place during long stretches of the match. Sure, we have witnessed some bright spots from the 25-year-old, but he often forces his teammates to clean up the messes he creates. Whether it be from surging forward at the wrong time or due to a clumsy error, Chandler has left the USMNT hanging on a plethora of occasions during the Gold Cup.
That brings us to the complicated situation if Chandler is removed from the starting lineup. Evans started in his place against Haiti and delivered a fine performance, but he doesn't offer much in attack. Johnson, who was the one reliable part of the USMNT back four on Monday, is able to play either full back position and on both of the wings.
Johnson's positional adaptation would allow Klinsmann to move him over to the right if the USMNT boss wants to give Beasley, who called off his international retirement before the Gold Cup, a shout. Klinsmann can look no further than Beasley's most recent club match to see what he can offer to the Yanks. Beasley was a constant force on the left flank for Houston against San Jose on Friday night and left few spaces open when the Earthquakes attempted to counter.
Beasley is a known quantity, and that may be exactly what Klinsmann needs to solidify his squad and repeat as Gold Cup champion. He would also bring a calming influence to the entire USMNT team, which isn't visible in the current defensive setup. The Yanks do have Michael Bradley and Kyle Beckerman in leadership roles in front of the back four, but no true leader has developed between the central midfielders and Brad Guzan in goal.
However, there is also the possibility that Klinsmann will only change his lineup in the quarterfinal round because of Brooks' suspension. Throughout the second half, Brooks and Alvarado improved, and Chandler committed few errors against the third-place side in Group A.
Brooks was especially impressive as he showed no fear of playing with a yellow. His standout moment from the second half came in the 60th minute, when he made a perfect sliding tackle on Perez as he surged toward the right side of the penalty area. The Hertha Berlin defender also cleared the ball away on a few key plays late in the match. Despite his strong showing next to Alvarado, the concerns about Brooks still lingered due to his first-half inefficiency.
Tinkering with a squad and covering up its errors is an exact science that only the best managers can perfect. Klinsmann did that to an extent when he brought on Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin to start the second half, but the ghosts of the poor first-half defensive performance still haunted the Yanks when the game finished 1-1. U.S. Soccer on Twitter had this comment from Klinsmann:
The mistakes committed by the USMNT defense in the first half will hurt the team even more in the knockout round against the likes of Costa Rica and Mexico. Regardless of who starts in the next match on Saturday, the Yanks must improve on their defending in order to be seen as the favorite to hoist the Gold Cup in Philadelphia on July 25.
Joe Tansey covers U.S. Soccer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.