Same as it ever was: Left back always a problem for U.S. men

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Why can't the U.S. produce a left-sided Steve Cherundolo? As Steve Davis writes, that's now Jurgen Klinsmann's problem.

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Can we talk a little bit about the United States’ ongoing problem child of a position, left back? No, it will not be pleasant. But, yes, we need to do it again.

If you have reported on, blogged about, commented publicly about or even casually conversed about the U.S. men's soccer team over the last 20 years, you have certainly chewed on this perpetually unstable situation. If not … well, then you’ve been doing it wrong.

Show me the roster from pretty much any major tournament (going way back – like before some of the guys in the current U.S. player pool were born) and I I'll show you a hole at left back; or, at very least, a highly imperfect solution.

And here we are again. There weren’t many surprises as U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann unveiled his 40-man preliminary roster for next month's Copa America Centenario. Considering Klinsmann’s mad-scientist ways, that’s a good thing.

Unfortunately, one of those non-surprises was this: there really is no rock-solid choice at left back.

This left-back position is where good sense sometimes goes to die.

Which brings us to Eric Lichaj, who was probably the closest thing we got to any kind of jolt as the roster dropped Sunday. Lichaj had a good campaign at Nottingham Forest in England’s second tier, and yet it’s fair to wonder what this means. After all, he hasn’t been seen with the national team in almost three years; Klinsmann’s reluctant appraisal of Lichaj as national team material seemed clear. And yet, here he is.

Well, good for him! Maybe the guy can jump-start his national team career at 27 years old.  Point is, nobody is nodding assured affirmation, looking at this selection and saying, “Right-o, he’s the one! We’re looking good at left back now.”

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Jorge Villafaña: Notably absent. (Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

But what were the other choices? Edgar Castillo has been consistently underwhelming. And yet he has generally been better than Timothy Chandler, who never looks up to the job. Kellyn Acosta isn’t a fullback for his club, and it’s just asking for trouble to make the 20-year-old face Colombia & Co., in a big-boy match, yet in a mostly unfamiliar position. Tim Ream can probably do the job, although he’s really a center back.

There may have been a couple of intriguing options that fell into the “diamond in the rough” category. For instance, the Brek Shea experiment is paying off for Adrian Heath at Orlando City. And Klinsmann seemed bullish on this positional relocation before. (We wrote a little about this last week, using Shea as an example of how Klinsmann should perhaps use Copa to boldly go young, to use this summer’s tourney for development.)

Same for Jorge Villafaña, who was perhaps the best player in last year’s MLS Cup final, helping Portland climb high that day. It seems like there’s something there in Shea or Villafana. According to ESPN’s Taylor Twellman, Villafana is "on the radar" for after Copa. Which left plenty of us asking …  uh … “after”? Why “after”?

An age-old issue

See, this left-back position is where good sense sometimes goes to die. Or don’t you remember the time Klinsmann stationed a playmaking midfielder, Jose Torres, there? Yes, that really happened.

Think of the U.S. history at left back as one of those old fashioned little clown cars. Not that these guys are “clowns;” that’s not the point. Rather, it’s the way the cute little thing pulls up and a couple of funny looking things get out … then more … then more … and they just keep coming!

Here’s a quick history of what we’ll call the “U.S. left back condition” - an itch that U.S. coaches just can not scratch, going back to the days of Steve Sampson, Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley and now Klinsmann.

Going into the 2014 World Cup, the choices for left back included Fabian Johnson (clearly better as a midfielder or winger), Michael Parkhurst (a center back), Chandler (not just inadequate at the spot, but kinda flakey), Castillo and trusty old DaMarcus Beasley. In the end, it was Beasley, and he was good enough – but don’t forget that he was a longtime midfielder making a late-career conversion. So even that was a little sketchy, and definitely not a long-term solution.

Back around the time of the 2010 World Cup, Carlos Bocanegra was the guy. That was Bradley’s best bandage in his attempt to corral this little lost sheep of a position. Bocanegra didn’t add much going forward, but he had played the spot at Fulham, so, yeah … why not? But when Oguchi Onyewu proved so rickety in the middle, Bradley needed Bocanegra to stabilize things there. So Jonathan Bornstein, who was capable at the international level although never world-class, took the spot for the 2010 World Cup duration.

Before that, the list of left backs who had lined up for Bradley, Arena or Sampson included a few serviceable types – but also quite a few center backs in disguise, and a few fellows who passed the test in MLS but were nothing to shout about internationally. That long list includes Jeff Agoos, Chris Albright, Wade Barrett, Gregg Berhalter, Dan Califf, Bobby Convey, Ramiro Corrales, Todd Dunivant, Frankie Hejduk, Cory Gibbs, Eddie Lewis, John O'Brien, Heath Pearce, David Regis, Ryan Suarez, Jonathan Spector and Greg Vanney.

See any threats to bump Roberto Carlos off the list of “best left backs” in soccer history? Me either.

That list isn’t terrible. It’s just that, generally, none of those guys could ever string together a series of show-stopping performances that said, “This position is mine … just try to come and take it!”

Basically, we’re looking for Steve Cherundolo. The left-sided version, that is.

Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone. (Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)

Cherundolo was the longtime incumbent at right back, the usual first-choice for about 10 years, although injuries took him away from the 2002 World Cup and a couple of the important tournaments after that (the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup). He was perpetually underrated by a U.S. fan base that frequently, inexplicably, always coveted something better. That group didn’t know what it had in Cherundolo, a Bundesliga co-captain who started every match in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.  The United States had some deficiencies in those tournaments, for sure, but right back wasn’t one of them.

Cherundolo’s connection with Landon Donovan, on the occasions when they patrolled the right side in tandem, was a particularly joyful thing.

So, yeah, that guy. We’ve never found that guy at left back.

The ongoing issue certainly raises bigger questions. Is this a product of our still under-developed youth structure, where the very last position prized and prioritized in development is left back?

The ongoing issue certainly raises bigger questions. Is this a product of our still under-developed youth structure, where the very last position prized and prioritized in development is left back?

Of course, that demands larger study. For now, we’d just take someone who can play dependably and crisply out of the back, who would not be exposed in one-on-one defending and who could shape a few decent crosses from the left.

Is that too much to ask?

In 2016 it is, I suppose. Same as it ever was.

MLS This and That

After careful scrutiny of MLS Round 9, we would love to see …

A little more of this: Sunday’s national TV games were sparkling ads for the league. Providence Park in Portland (Portland vs. Toronto) and Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City (SKC vs. L.A. Galaxy) were absolutely teeming with brilliant atmosphere. The quality of soccer was quite good, too, especially in Portland.

… and a little less of that: The only negative Sunday were the pictures of LA Galaxy players surrounding referee Chris Penso – and putting their hands on Penso following Ashley Cole’s (completely justifiable) red card following his second yellow card in a minute.  Jelle Van Damme and Gio dos Santos made contact with Penso and need a “talking to” from the league, at very least.

A little more of this: The New York Red Bulls who showed up Friday against Dallas! Now that is the version that everyone expected to see in 2016, coming off last year’s wave of success around Red Bull Arena. Sacha Kljestan was particularly effective, dominant and omnipresent in midfield. Then again, Kljestan has been proficient all year. Almost everyone has noticed – a certain national team coach as the apparent exception.  

… and a little less of that: Vancouver is difficult to watch right now. Check that; Let’s go with “painful” to watch right now. Carl Robinson’s team, with 3 wins from 10 matches, has absolutely no ability to pass through midfield at present. Yes, the Whitecaps needed to patch together a lineup against NYCFC, and yes that itty-bitty field at Yankee Stadium is problematic. But that Route 1 soccer is the way Vancouver goes about things every time out.  

A little more of this: Expansion news! We love expansion news, any development, rumor, glimmer, whisper, report or PR ploy meant to grab MLS deciders’ attention. Give us more! Last week it was Detroit begging its way into the MLS expansion pick-up game. And it is glorious! Proving once again that strange condition in the MLS universe: We generally care as much about who else might be in MLS as we do teams that are in MLS.

… and a little less of that: Peter Vermes and Co. do a lot right at Sporting KC. But letting Krisztian Nemeth get away is looking more and more like an off-season boo-boo. Hard to say whether SKC could have offered enough to dissuade the Hungarian international from taking the big stacks of cash in Qatar. But this much is clear: the SKC attack is looking awfully narrow these days; they sorely miss Nemeth’s ability to provide threat from the outside.

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Steve Davis writes a weekly column for FourFourTwo on all things soccer in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @SteveDavis90.