Which John Brooks will show up?
That's a question Bruce Arena will be asking himself heading into the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifiers in March against Honduras and Panama. Will it be the dominating force who turned heads at last summer's Copa America with his imposing and near-flawless play? Or will it be the Brooks who stumbled through one of the worst defensive performances in recent memory in November's qualifying loss to Costa Rica?
In fairness to Brooks, the Costa Rica debacle feels like more of an anomaly given how well he played during the rest of 2016. The Hertha Berlin defender has returned to the Bundesliga this season and re-established himself as a key starter, which would seem to suggest he has put the entire Costa Rica nightmare behind him.
Arena will be hoping so, because Brooks at his best is at a level no other left center back option in the U.S. pool can reach. But that doesn't mean Arena may not have his eye on a potential second option in Matt Hedges, who could be ready supplant Matt Besler as Brooks' main competition for the left-sided center back spot.
Much like left back, there is a dearth of naturally left-footed center backs in the U.S. player pool, something that was easy to ignore for years due to the presence of former U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. Once Bocanegra was forced out of the picture by Jurgen Klinsmann in 2013, Matt Besler stepped in for the next two years, with Brooks filling the role soon after.
What does the left center back pool look like now? Here is a glance at some of the best current options, and some prospects to consider for the future:
Brooks remains the first-choice starter at the position, and given how well he has been playing for Hertha, he should once again be penciled in for the March qualifiers.
Besler missed the January camp due to minor ankle surgery, which may have opened the door for Hedges to edge past him. Hedges isn't naturally left-footed, but has a strong enough left foot to play the position comfortably, as he does for FC Dallas.
Besler became a bit of a forgotten man after being reduced largely to a reserve role as Brooks became the first-choice option. Fresh off ankle surgery to remove bone spurs, Besler should be poised for a bounce-back year. While he may not be ready to be a starting option by March, Besler should be in the conversation as we draw closer to summer qualifiers.
Hedges is fresh off a season that saw him win MLS Defender of the Year, and Bruce Arena sang his praises after the January national team camp. If Brooks has any struggles, or isn't available, don't be surprised if Arena throws Hedges into the lineup — and if that happens, Hedges is good enough to keep the spot.
Chad Marshall and Drew Moor are both older defenders, but they were defensive stalwarts for last year's MLS Cup finalists. Marshall made the most of his January call-up, impressing Arena. Moor is probably still on the fringes of the national team conversation.
Though Tim Ream has been seen more recently at left back with the national team, it shouldn't be forgotten that he made his name for a large part of his career as a left-footed center back, where he has also been starting regularly for Fulham.
Anyone watching the U.S. Under-20 national team during World Cup qualifying has probably already come away impressed with Justen Glad, who is fresh off a breakout season as a starter for Real Salt Lake. Though he may wind up playing on the right side for Real Salt Lake in 2017, Glad is a player who could fit in on either side of a center back pairing.
Chris Schuler is an interesting player. Injuries have plagued him for a fair amount of his career, but when healthy he is an enticing combination of size and skill. He finished the 2016 season well, and is looking sharp in preseason. He could be a breakout player in 2017 if he can stay healthy.
Danny Barbir is currently with the West Brom U-19 team, but in terms of left-footed center back prospects in the national team talent pool, he is one to remember for the future.