Tuesday, March 28, 2023

USMNT roster: Will Gregg Berhalter ever give John Brooks another chance to suit up for the USA?

Injuries are mounting for the United States men’s national team’s defense. Miles Robinson’s achilles tear has unsettled the most consistent part of the USMNT lineup and his most likely replacement, Chris Richards is himself recovering from injury. With the increasing uncertainty in the back line it’s not surprising that Gregg Berhalter has opted to call in little used options like Cameron Carter-Vickers during the summer to get a look at what he can do. But, what is surprising is seeing a defender who has scored at the World Cup in the past for the team, John Brooks, get left at home in Germany. It’s a curious decision that prompts a deep dive into what exactly is going on between Berhalter and Brooks.

Brooks’ future is murky not only for his country but also on a club level. He will leave Wolfsburg at the end of the season, but after four consecutive seasons of playing around 30 games for the Bundesliga club, the 29-year-old should have no shortage of suitors, which continues to pose the question, if Brooks will have no issues catching on with a new club, why can’t he get back to getting a call from his national team coach?

It’s not like he hasn’t played for Berhalter before. It wasn’t until appearing in disappointing World Cup Qualifying matches against Canada and Honduras, the first a home draw and the second a match that the United States scored four unanswered goals in after Brooks was withdrawn at the half, that Brooks was dropped. He hasn’t made an appearance for the national team since that window last September. Around November of 2021 when asked about Brooks, Berhalter said that his omission was due to performance in those previous games. That he was working his way back into form and needed to get back to his usual levels to get another opportunity with the team.

To an extent, it was easy to see where Berhalter was coming from in that moment. Wolfsburg, a team that had qualified for the Champions League the previous season, won only one game during the month of November and looked to be in danger of relegation. As the defense hemorrhaged goals, Books was benched for two games against Stuttgart and Koln before being restored to the starting lineup. The issues weren’t only due to Brooks but he was included in them. While he was away, the national team kept plugging away defeating Mexico 2-0 and then drawing with Jamaica in a match that was more telling of issues with the forward line than any relating to the defensive corps.

By the time January rolled around bringing with it another roster that didn’t include Brooks, Wolfsburg’s form had stabilized and Brooks was again starting regularly. This time Berhalter said there was nothing wrong with his form but instead the issue was with his fit with the team. And then he also said that he still needed to regain his form. “We think that he will continue to play a role with us in the future. For this window, we decided, based on how we’re looking at these games, and what are the strengths of our opponent, that he wouldn’t be the best fit for this particular window. We’re hoping that he regains his form for Wolfsburg, and they start winning games and move themselves up the table. He’s a key part of that.”

When looking at that fit, Berhalter is probably referring to Brooks’ comfort on the ball both dribbling and playing out of the back. Both Robinson and Zimmerman will go on marauding runs when given the chance and are more comfortable with the ball at their feet than Brooks. It’s not that Brooks is a liability, but he’s more of an old school “see ball,” “get ball,” “clear ball,” center-back. Berhalter is a manager who wants to play a progressive style where each player can move the ball up the pitch but Brooks isn’t likely to improve enough on the ball to impress him.

And at least throughout qualifying the USMNT didn’t miss him. They did what they needed to do in defeating El Salvador and Honduras though again lost to Canada. But for Wolfsburg, Brooks enjoyed a February that saw Wolfsburg pick up ten points as they finally started righting the ship. The defense was at the center of this improvement as they didn’t allow more than two goals in a match between January 9 and March 12 with Brooks starting each match.

But the March window came and Berhalter didn’t call him on and began to get terse on Brooks. “There are some details in his game that I talked to him that we need to improve to fit into our game model. We don’t have time on Tuesday to improve these things,” he said. With Brooks’ club form improving, that window could have been a chance for him to have a chance to work on some of those issues with the squad while not starting matches until he showed improvement. Instead, Aaron Long and Erik Palmer-Brown were called in as depth options. 

Taken altogether it’s hard not to wonder if maybe on field performance is only part of the equation. It’s possible that Berhalter and Brooks spoke and Brooks didn’t want to come into the squad if he didn’t start. It’s also possible that Berhalter worried that if he wasn’t starting Brooks might have been a chemistry issue with the group. In March, Tyler Adams spoke about the bonds within the locker room.

“We’re very connected, this goes deeper than football,” said Adams. “We’ve created friendships and relationships with guys that translate completely onto the field. So we really miss those guys and they’re important pieces to our team. But again, it’s good to have more guys that are able to come in and play pivotal roles in our team.”

Is Brooks a part of that connection? Does Berhalter think that bringing Brooks into the squad would upset those bonds? It certainly seems like an explanation that makes perfect sense and explains leaving him home despite the talent that he has. It’s also true that Brooks is a holdover from a different era of the USMNT. Most of this team has come up through the youth ranks together, Brooks was one of the players recruited to the team under Klinsmann, and broke through with the USMNT during a time that featured a notoriously fractured culture. The vibes back then, as the kids say, were bad. Brooks is a representation of a different time, one that Berhalter is doing a good job of putting far in the background with the team’s current success. 

Comments this month from Berhalter as he’s picking his summer roster makes it seem like Brooks is nowhere near getting back into this side. He confirmed Carter-Vickers is going to get a look during the camp over Brooks, saying, “I would rather look at a guy like [Carter-VIckers] to see what he can do because I know what John can do”. 

In Germany, Brooks is regarded as a starting caliber defender, but when it comes to national team play, he can’t get a look in. Balancing a team’s cohesion and tactical style with the abilities of the players at their disposal is one of the most important tasks for a manager. So, if Berhalter feels like this is what he has to do in order to get the best out of his squad, then he is doing his job by leaving Brooks out. But, considering the quality of attacks that the United States will face both during the summer and in Qatar, these are things that he’ll have to answer for if his decision doesn’t work out. Berhalter’s time in charge, guiding the USMNT back to the World Cup, means he deserves some leeway when making these decisions, and there’s every reason to believe he knows what’s best for his team. But keeping Brooks out, even as the defensive unit for the USMNT thins is a big call. If it doesn’t work, it’s the kind of decision that could eventually cost Berhalter his job.

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