Brooks-Cameron partnership is U.S.'s greatest revelation of Copa America
In the aftermath of the U.S. men's national team's 2-1 victory over Ecuador on Thursday, captain Michael Bradley noted that the Americans have won games in different ways during the Copa America Centenario, and how this has been a key factor in the team's run to the semifinals. But while adaptability is indeed a desirable trait for a team to have, such a run requires its share of constants as well, and nowhere has the level of play of the U.S. been more consistently high than in the center of defense.
That is down to the performances of John Brooks and Geoff Cameron. The duo has been playing at such a high level that their partnership is arguably the biggest development to come out of the tournament for the Americans. (Bobby Wood's emergence up top runs second.) The two defenders have been called upon quite a bit as well. Brooks leads the entire Copa America with 30 clearances, Cameron is third at 18, and most importantly, the U.S. defense has only conceded three goals in four matches.
"It's important anywhere on the pitch that you have players that are dominating, but especially the center-backs," goalkeeper Brad Guzan said prior to the Ecuador match.
It's mind-boggling to think of the state of flux the center-back positions for the Americans have been in throughout the past year. In the past 12 months, manager Jurgen Klinsmann has started nine different players at center-back and used 14 different pairings to start games. While some selections were clearly of the short-term variety -- Jermaine Jones' appearance against Canada in February comes to mind -- the numbers speak to just how unsettled the position had become.
No doubt, injuries forced Klinsmann's hand in many instances. Cameron was left off the Gold Cup roster last year to give him some rest. Brooks seemed to pick up injuries at inopportune times -- he has yet to play in a World Cup qualifier this cycle -- as did Matt Besler. But some of the issues were performance driven, in that no two players seemed capable of providing the level needed to hold onto a starting spot. In last year's Gold Cup, Brooks was far from convincing, as was Ventura Alvarado.
But in the past month everything has fallen into place. The Cameron-Brooks partnership has been used for the past five games, and the recently concluded club season proved to be the foundation for success this summer at the international level. Brooks in particular has seen his level improve; he's become more dominant in the air, and his concentration level has increased.
"For me, the key was that I played a lot of games at my club, and then I came here and I was very confident," Brooks said following the Ecuador match. "It just keeps going."
In Cameron's case, it helped that he played the bulk of his minutes at Stoke City this season at center-back, though he did see time at right-back and in the center of midfield. And the two seem to complement each other well. Both have good size, mobility and can play the ball out of the back.
"I really enjoy playing alongside of [Brooks]," Cameron said earlier this month. "There's times where I use my speed and my strength to cut out a pass, but I don't have to do that as much because he's got that speed and he's got the strength. He's powerful. He's got the ability and the skill set that a lot of people should admire."
It's a partnership that now looks set to last for the rest of the cycle, and just in time too. With CONCACAF's semifinal round of World Cup qualifying nearly complete, the final round Hexagonal begins in November, for which the U.S. is a lock. With Brooks and Cameron in the lineup, garnering points away from home looks a lot more doable than it did when the U.S. fell on the road to Guatemala in March.
But first comes the biggest test of all: a Copa America semifinal assignment against a ridiculously talented Argentina squad. The names on the Albiceleste's roster read like a roll call of the world's best attacking players: Ezequiel Lavezzi, Javier Pastore, Erik Lamela, Angel Di Maria, Gonzalo Higuain, Ever Banega and the incomparable Lionel Messi. Di Maria is still recuperating from an adductor injury, but Nicolas Gaitan has filled in capably for both Messi and Di Maria throughout the tournament.
The U.S. effort will be hampered by the fact that three players are suspended for the match. The U.S. had hoped to get some relief in that regard, as it appealed to overturn Jones' red card and the yellow for Wood that took place against Ecuador. But the Copa America Disciplinary Committee denied the U.S. team's request, and the U.S. will no doubt miss Jones' box-to-box running and defensive commitment. The same is true for Alejandro Bedoya, the third suspended American.
Yet the play of Brooks and Cameron at least gives the U.S. a platform upon which to build, especially considering the U.S. figures to do more defending against Argentina than in previous matches.
"I just think we need to keep doing what we're doing, man," Cameron said in an interview with Univision. "We'll go over tape, we'll go over the game and see what we can improve, see what we did well, and kind of keep going from there."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.