What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: John Brooks
4:12 PM EDT on October 28, 2022
Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Structurally and tactically speaking, the United States men's national team under Gregg Berhalter has fallen into place in a fairly logical manner. All the good young attackers mostly have places to go, the midfield makes sense, and Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson are tasked with making the sorts of plays they should be making. Yet one of the most important positions in the game is ominously unsettled, one month before the World Cup. The team has cycled through a bunch of different center back pairings, yet because of injuries and some Berhalterian perversions, it's not exactly clear who will stand with Walker Zimmerman against Harry Kane and Gareth Bale in the group stage.
Miles Robinson and Chris Richards emerged as the best pairing through qualification, but Robinson tore his Achilles and Richards is out of form after being injured and not really paying for Crystal Palace. Tim Ream plays in the Premier League and started one qualifier and has not been back in the squad in 13 months. Mark McKenzie has performed tremendously for his club but has yet to replicate that form in a U.S. shirt. Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown are clearly talented and cool yet Berhalter doesn't trust them. Auston Trusty has been killing it for Birmingham City this season but the coach isn't going to call him up for the very first time at a World Cup. All signs point to Aaron Long getting meaningful minutes in Qatar, which should scare USMNT fans. If only there was a proven player in the prime of his career Berhalter could call up to the team. If only John Brooks hadn't been exiled from the team.
Who Does He Play For?
Brooks now plays for Benfica, which is something of a shock. He left Wolfsburg after five years with the club this past summer, and despite showing he could compete at the highest level, he struggled to find a club that wanted to pay his high wages. He was rumored to be close to deals with clubs in the Saudi league and MLS, and though those seemed like strange career choices, it was odd that no one more reputable had scooped him up by the end of August. He was reportedly about to sign for Mallorca when Benfica swooped in after Brooks had already flown to Spain for a medical. He has barely played for Benfica this season, though in his one long outing thus far, he showed he is still very much 6-foot-4 and can still handle pressure.
Coming into this qualification cycle, Brooks looked set to be the lone holdover from the 2014 World Cup team who could expect to play serious minutes in 2022. Throughout the Bruce Arena years and into the start of World Cup qualifying, Brooks had always been a rock at the back for club and country. A veteran of nine full Bundesliga seasons and one standout year in the 2.Bundesliga, Brooks matured from an big, athletic prospect into a steady central defender with impressive passing range. This made him the obvious choice for the U.S. in central defense for years, as the other options were, like, Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler.
Like Ream, Brooks was only called in for the USMNT's first round of World Cup qualifiers this go-round, and his last involvement was playing the disastrous first half against Honduras in an eventual 4–1 comeback win. After an injury kept him from the October window, a healthy Brooks was a surprise exclusion from the November window, and he hasn't been back since. Berhalter said that he excluded Brooks because he was committing to playing a higher line, he wanted center backs who could more capably defend in open space, and Wolfburg's system was different enough that he wasn't sure Brooks could fit with the way he wanted to play. Fair enough, though Aaron Long is worse than Brooks at every single part of the game. Berhalter said he'd reevaluate Brooks based off his form in the fall, and given that he hasn't played much, he's probably not going to Qatar despite desperately wanting to and probably deserving to. He's only 29, younger than Long and the same age as Zimmerman, so it's not like he's a creaky veteran struggling to keep up with children.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Brooks is a great big huge guy. He dominates in the air (see: Show To Me A Cool Highlight) and uses his physical skills to punish attackers. The downside here is that Brooks is not the zippiest player in the world, but he has big guy speed. He won't change directions like an NFL cornerback or a tiny defender. In a vacuum, Berhalter is correct: Wolfsburg didn't play a high line, and Brooks's strengths as a defender are best used when he gets to sit a bit further back. The problem with extending that thinking to the point of Brooks's exclusion is that this is not a vacuum—this is a competitive framework, and Brooks's recovery abilities are still good enough that he should be in the squad. And that is to say nothing of the best part of Brooks's game, his passing.
The guy is a silky left-footed passer out of the back, comfortable knifing through the first line of defense with a sneaky ball or walloping a huge switch across the field. This would be extremely helpful for a USMNT that wants to possess the ball but often struggles to get things going up the field and spends long stretches aimlessly dinking it around between the back four and Tyler Adams. Panama exposed those limitations last October, and Japan just showed how easy it is for a good team to completely neutralize the USMNT if they just kick it around the back for a while. At least Brooks can do stuff with the ball.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Brooks is 29, just moved to the Portuguese league to be a backup, and is a central defender, so he gets the rare 1 out of 105. Brooks is who he is at this point. We've probably seen his ceiling, which is solid player on a lower-level Champions League team.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
John Brooks is left-footed and has only ever played center back throughout his career. Does that mean he "can't" play right back? No, because you know what position on the field is directly next to center back? Right back.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
LET'S GO LET'S GO!
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
According to Berhalter, not well. I don't really agree. Even if Brooks's strengths don't mesh perfectly with the USMNT's preferred style, the player pool is not so deep that we can afford to sacrifice talent for theoretical fit when the theoretically better-fitting players bring with them serious limitations. It also just feels bad that Brooks has been kept away from the team when he's been so crucial for the USMNT in its long inter-World Cup drought and he's missing out because he had a bad few months at exactly the wrong time. It feels worse that he's being replaced with such an incompetent slowpoke who doesn't know where to stand and can't pass the ball. I was down with Chris Richards and Miles Robinson taking over the starting spots because they're young and cool and can do stuff that Brooks can't necessarily do. It's going to be very frustrating if the USMNT's makeshift central defense struggles while Brooks has to watch from Portugal.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?