When Miles Robinson went down early in Atlanta United’s 4-1 victory over the Chicago Fire last weekend, he pointed to the back of his leg and then punched the ground in frustration.
Robinson knew that if the injury was an Achilles tear, it would cost him the World Cup. His fears became a reality when the Achilles’ injury was confirmed and he underwent surgery that likely ends his MLS season — and his shot at making the roster for Qatar.
Robinson, 25, had become a go-to starter for the US men’s national team under Gregg Berhalter. His pairing of him with Walker Zimmerman on the back line had proven to be a very dependable one, with Robinson’s composure in space and recovery ability meshing well with Zimmerman’s prowess in the air and his leadership of him. The pairing weren’t necessarily the best ball-playing center backs, but they were athletic, able to defend 1-on-1 in space and were capable of matching up with the most physical forwards in CONCACAF.
Now, the US must figure out a replacement for Robinson in the starting lineup. Some options have already been tested in World Cup qualifying. Others, less so.
Here is a look at some of the players Berhalter will likely consider for the starting job opposite Zimmerman this summer and fall and, eventually, at the World Cup in Qatar.
Chris Richards, Hoffenheim (on loan from Bayern Munich)
The frontrunner to replace Robinson in the starting lineup next to Zimmerman, Richards started four World Cup qualifiers for the US since October. His technical ability on the ball and ability to defend in space are probably the best compliment to Zimmerman, and he’s shown he can play on both the left and right side of a center back pairing.
Richards did well to help contain the vertical threats against Jamaica when defending Michail Antonio, performed well at home against Costa Rica and was starting to round into form with the US when he injured his foot against Canada in January. His passing ability from him, especially, stands out from the options on the US back line.
The 22-year-old from Birmingham, Ala. signed with Bayern Munich from FC Dallas’s academy, but was at Hoffenheim on loan this season where he got regular minutes as a Bundesliga starter. He’s played 19 games, with injuries holding him out for a portion of the season, including a recent thigh injury that ended his campaign and could prevent him from being a part of June camp. According to Smarterscout data — and here is an explainer on how that data works — Richards had ratings of 90 and 93 in aerial duels in open play and ground duels out of possession compared to his Bundesliga counterparts, with solid attacking output and defending quality ratings of 74, as well.
If Richards can stay healthy, he probably has the inside track for the starting job.
Aaron Long, New York Red Bulls
Long was once a lockdown starter for Berhalter, but a torn Achilles sidelined the Red Bull defender for eight months and opened the door for Robinson, Zimmerman and Richards to make their case. It’s worth noting, though, that Berhalter integrated Long back into camp before he had even returned to the playing field in MLS — he took part in the December and January camps — and then was back in the US team for the March qualifiers. Long played just 35 minutes in those March qualifiers, though, entering two games as a substitute.
It matters that there is a level of trust between Long and Berhalter. The 29-year-old started every game of the 2019 Gold Cup and played a role in those early Nations League games. But at the time Long was a lockdown starter in 2019, Richards was playing for Bayern Munich’s reserves as a 19-year-old. The careers of the other names on this list were also in a much different place. Long faces more competition now for his spot from him, but his experience from him should give him an advantage.
So far this year, Long has started all 10 games for a RBNY team that is one point off the top of the Eastern Conference table. Smarterscout loves him at a Bundesliga standard, with a rating of 95 in attacking output, 82 in defending quality, 86 in defending quantity, 88 in aerial duels from dead balls and 91 in ground duels out of possession — though he rates as just an 11 in ball retention, not a surprise considering the Red Bull model is built essentially around the idea of not retaining the ball. That Red Bull model certainly differs from Berhalter’s preferred methods, but this USMNT has been less system-focused and more pressing- and transition-based over the course of qualifying.
Erik Palmer-Brown, Troyes
The former Sporting KC homegrown defender pushed his way into the USMNT picture in March, when not only did he get called up for the first time since a pair of friendlies in March 2021 (in which he did not play), but was called into action against Mexico at the Azteca as a right back.
EPB achieved himself well in that 10-minute performance, and it was important in that it showed his versatility. Palmer-Brown can play as a center back on both the left and right sides, he can slide out to fullback and he has the ability to step into midfield as a No. 6 if needed. He also had a breakout campaign in France, where he started 17 games and helped to keep Troyes in Ligue 1. That run of games also provided a ton of important experience defending against good attacking talent. Smarterscout’s ratings don’t rank him as highly as others listed here, but the 25-year-old certainly has shown his value on the depth chart with an ability to be thrown into a game under pressure and respond with a good performance. The tougher question to answer is whether EPB can step into a starting role.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, Celtic
Carter-Vickers has not been summoned to the USMNT since June of 2019, when he made an 18-minute substitute appearance. Since then he has played, on loan from Tottenham, for Stoke City, Luton Town, Bournemouth and, this year, Celtic, where he had his breakout campaign.
Carter-Vickers started 31 times for a team that can wrap up the Scottish Premiership title with one more result, and his performances there have likely earned him a call-up to the US camp in June. Berhalter hinted to reporters last week that “CCV” would be involved with the US The 24-year-old, 6-foot defender is considered a “top prospect” at a Bundesliga standard, per Smarterscout, though there is limited data on the Scottish premiership. He’s rated highly defensively, which has always been the most definitive part of his game from him. But Celtic want to be able to build out of the back, and there have been mixed reviews in Carter-Vickers’ ability to do that, especially when Celtic face better opponents who press them. Fans have rated him as the player of the season for his defensive contributions from him, but a ball-playing center back is on the shopping list for this summer, an indication that Celtic manager Ange Postecoglou believes he can get more out of that position.
With his defensive ability and decent athleticism, CCV could force his way into the picture in the upcoming games next month, but he’ll certainly face more pressure and more of a demand to be good on the ball on the international stage. His ability of him on the ball may be what decided his role of him with this US team.
John Brooks, Wolfsburg
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Purely based on his resume, Brooks is the most qualified player in this center back pool. He has played in a World Cup. He has played Champions League soccer. He’s been a fairly consistent Bundesliga starter.
Yet, the 29-year-old doesn’t seem to be in the picture right now for Berhalter.
This season has brought ups and downs for Brooks, both with the US and with Wolfsburg, but it will officially be odd if Brooks is not summoned for camp in June. Brooks is a left-footed center back with a good range of passing (he completed 87.22 percent of his passes successful this season). He has the ability to cover ground and space, even if he doesn’t have the pace to move with the quickest players up top. He’s solid defensively and ranked among the best in the Bundesliga in tackle success rate (61.6 percent).
Per Smarterscout, Brooks rated just a 38 in attacking output at a Bundesliga standard and a 64 in defending quality, but he defended often (78) and was very strong in aerial duels (84 in open play, 87 on dead balls). He was not as strong on ground duels, however (43 both in and out of possession).
In March, when asked why Brooks was left off the final qualifying roster, Berhalter said they needed to work with him on things within the system that would help him compete to be a starter. Last week in an interview with reporters in DC, Berhalter seemed to say he was not going to call on Brooks in favor of other defenders like Cameron-Vickers because he knows what Brooks can bring to the table.
Robinson’s injury, though, should change that calculation. The US is no longer looking for a third or fourth center back. They need a starter next to Zimmerman. A Brooks-Zimmerman pairing wouldn’t be the quickest, but Brooks’ experience and proven ability to defend against top talent in the Bundesliga should at least earn him a chance to win the job.
Mark McKenzie, Genk – McKenzie had a difficult second half of the season at Genk, at times finding himself out of the squad completely. He has worked to do to push himself back into the national team picture.
James SandsRangers – It has been difficult for the 21 year old to break into a very good Rangers side. He’s managed just six league appearances since moving there in January. His ability to play him as a center back in a 3- and 4-man backline or as a defensive midfield helps his case to make the roster, but it’s tougher to see him as an answer to replace Robinson at the top of the depth chart.
Tim Ream, Fulham – The veteran was a regular on Berhalter’s rosters in the first couple of years, but he’s been out of the team for some time now despite playing regularly for Fulham’s Championship-winning side. Maybe a strong start to the EPL season gets him back into the picture, but a Ream-Zimmerman back line would come with some real question marks, specifically in their ability to defend pacier front lines or defend in space when the USMNT throws numbers forward.
(Photo: John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images)