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Ives Galarcep: Transformed defense will be key to U.S. World Cup success

In the past 18 months, Jurgen Klinsmann has painstakingly transformed his defense, and that back line will be important to the U.S. national team's chances in Brazil.

NATAL, Brazil — If there is an area of the field where Jurgen Klinsmann has spend the most time transforming his U.S. national team, it is in the back. Once seen as a vulnerable and patchwork defense, the unit suddenly heads into the 2014 World Cup looking like it's capable of having a strong tournament.

It is a surprising transition, but not an accidental one, as Klinsmann has made some calculated moves to piece together a back four that could be the most balanced group since the 2002 U.S. World Cup defense.

“I think we’re more athletic,” U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said of the current defense. “Particularly late on in qualifying, the way we press teams defensively was really, really good. So I think we can cause some trouble now, but we’ll see.”

“When I see Fabian (Johnson), the way he’s playing right now is unbelievable,” midfielder Jermaine Jones said. “Or DaMarcus Beasley, from this guy that nobody talks about but the way that he’s playing is crazy. He was a forward and he plays left back now, and it’s amazing.

“Then you have guys on defense like Geoff (Cameron) and (Matt) Besler, they’re (doing) a good job,” Jones added. “This is the point. We have to trust them, and maybe mistakes happen, but we know that we can be a tough team that sticks together when everybody does his job.”

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The transformation of the U.S. defense began in earnest at the start of the final round of World Cup qualifying, back in 2013, when Klinsmann made the controversial decision to bench then-U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra and start Geoff Cameron and Omar Gonzalez in central defense against Honduras. It was Klinsmann’s clear message that he wanted his defense to get younger and more athletic, even if it meant casting aside a team leader like Bocanegra.

The next two qualifiers in 2013 were also very important in helping shape the eventual World Cup defense when Klinsmann started Beasley at left back. It was a position Beasley had only played a handful of times for the national team, and with pretty poor results. Beasley rewarded Klinsmann’s faith, though, turning in impressive showings against Costa Rica and Mexico to solidify his place as a strong left back option.

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The qualifier in Mexico also served as the coming-out party for Besler, who helped shut down Mexico’s attack in a performance so impressive that he has become a fixture in the starting lineup ever since.

Even though the pieces for a strong defense started to come together as far back as a year ago,  Klinsmann had to eventually make some tough decisions about players who had been key figures in the U.S. team’s World Cup qualifying campaign and Gold Cup victory.

As recently as this past spring, Brad Evans looked like a strong contender to start at right back, while Omar Gonzalez had established himself as Besler’s center back partner through much of qualifying and the friendlies in early 2014. The problem was both had been shaky in national team appearances in recent months, leaving Klinsmann with a simple decision to make regarding the shuffling of his personnel.

Cameron has spent two seasons playing at right back for Stoke City, so it always seemed inevitable that he would compete for that spot on the U.S. team. Klinsmann never seemed to buy into that idea, though, and revealed his intentions early in the team’s pre-World Cup training camp when he moved Cameron to center back.

The move couldn’t really be seen as risky because Cameron was an MLS Defender of the Year finalist as a center back with the Houston Dynamo. Klinsmann always saw Cameron as a central defender, and the more Gonzalez struggled, the more the coach had no choice but to call on Cameron at center back.

The Besler-Cameron tandem had its growing pains during the send-off series, but finished the friendlies with a strong outing against Nigeria — the kind of showing that has the defense feeling good heading into the World Cup.

“It gets better every day just with practicing, experience, the different movements, understanding each other’s game,” Besler said of his partnership with Cameron. “I think we took a big step in the Nigeria game. I think all three games of the send-off series were important, but the Nigeria game was most important with the way that we played, the way that we came out and defended as a team, didn’t really give a whole lot away.

“I think we can gain confidence from that game.”

The final move Klinsmann made consisted of moving Johnson from left back to right back. While he hadn’t seen much action at right back for the national team, he was coming off a season with Hoffenheim that saw him play the position quite a bit. The move not only allows Klinsmann to put his best defender on the side of the field where some of Group G’s top attackers reside, but it also lets him start Beasley, the only U.S. defender to actually have played in a World Cup before.

Klinsmann’s defensive shuffling has left the team with a back four light on World Cup experience but heavy on quickness and athleticism, which will come in handy against fast attacks like Ghana’s and Portugal’s.

"If you look at our wing backs, our fullbacks, whoever’s going to be there, are guys that can get forward,” Besler said. “That’s part of our game plan. It’s been that way since Jurgen took over, and I think we have the personnel to do that.”

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