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Who will start in central defence for the USMNT at the 2022 World Cup?

As soon as Miles Robinson went down with an Achilles injury during a match for Atlanta United in May, discussion started on who would replace the 25-year-old in central defence for the US men’s national team at the 2022 World Cup. Until then, Robinson had been a lock alongside Walker Zimmerman at the back.

On Monday against Wales, in the USA’s first World Cup game, Gregg Berhalter must settle on a new partnership.

September’s friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia offered Berhalter the chance to experiment with some new defensive options, but injuries to Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards meant Aaron Long was the only centre back who received any meaningful minutes alongside Zimmerman. The New York Red Bulls man struggled, failing to stake his claim on the position.

Long didn’t play another competitive match after October 15th, following the Red Bulls early elimination from the MLS playoffs – more than a month prior to the start of the World Cup. It wasn’t an ideal situation after Zimmerman’s Nashville team also crashed out of the post-season. Berhalter would do well to turn to at least one centre back who has been playing consistently ahead of the tournament.

Carter-Vickers has since recovered from injury and been a consistent performer for Celtic for the last season-and-a-half. The 24-year-old has improved dramatically under the stewardship of Ange Postecoglou, with Carter-Vickers a key component in a team that likes to play out from the back.

While Celtic have struggled for points in this season’s Champions League, Carter-Vickers has handled the step up in competition. This suggests he would handle the pressure of playing at a World Cup with the USMNT in desperate need of high-quality options in central defence. Carter-Vickers ticks a number of boxes.

However, Carter-Vickers has played as the right-sided centre back in a back four for Celtic. This is the position favoured by Zimmerman and so one of the two would have to operate in an unfamiliar role on an unfamiliar side of the defence at the World Cup. This could create an imbalance in the USMNT side.

Tim Ream is seen by many USMNT fans as the common sense solution to Berhalter’s defensive troubles. The 35-year-old has started all 15 of Fulham’s Premier League fixtures this season and has impressed as a solid presence at the back for the Cottagers, who currently sit a tidy ninth in the table.

Ream would give his side some valuable experience in defence, as the USMNT are one of the youngest teams at this winter’s World Cup. He’s comfortable playing as the left-sided centre back, meaning Berhalter could slot him in alongside Zimmerman without having to use either player out of position.

Perhaps just as significant is that Ream has developed a strong partnership at Fulham with USA’s consensus starting left-back, Antonee Robinson. The value of that can’t be understated – two defenders that play next to each other week-in and week-out inherently ensure more stability through their constant connection. The US will need that in order to be patient and break lines through the opposition midfield. On the whole, Tim Ream is the best option available to the USMNT.

There are concerns over Ream’s lack of pace, which could be a problem for the USMNT’s high defensive line. It would be easy for opposition sides to play a ball in behind and turn Ream and Zimmerman. Berhalter will likely need to adapt his approach to ensure this doesn’t become a glaring weakness.

The USMNT has arrived at the 2022 World Cup with the most talented squad they have ever fielded, but that talent will be worth nothing if Berhalter can’t give his team a strong defensive foundation to build on. He has options, but each one comes with a compromise. Berhalter must determine which compromise gives the USA the best chance of success in Qatar.

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