Two weeks before the United States men’s national team enters the crucial home stretch of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, it was dealt a huge blow by the news that center back John Brooks will miss “around three months” with torn tendons in his right thigh.
Brooks, who became the most expensive American player ever this offseason when he moved to Wolfsburg for a reported $22 million, was injured 37 minutes into his debut with his new club on Sunday.
Wolfsburg announced the diagnosis on Wednesday:
The U.S., which sits in third place in the Hex, one point ahead of fourth-place Panama, has four remaining qualifiers, and all four fall within the next three months. Bruce Arena’s team takes on Costa Rica and Honduras in early September, and Panama and Trinidad and Tobago in early October.
Provided U.S. national team doctors don’t examine Brooks’ injury and come away with a significantly different diagnosis, the 24-year-old will likely miss all four of those qualifiers. That means he likely won’t play another competitive game in a U.S. jersey until next summer’s World Cup — should the U.S. qualify.
The U.S. must finish in the top three of the six-team Hex to reach next summer’s competition in Russia. If it finishes fourth, it will face a two-leg playoff with the fifth-place team from Asia for one of the final spots in the tournament.
Brooks isn’t the only member of Arena’s presumed first-choice back line with an injury concern. Right back DeAndre Yedlin is currently out with a hamstring injury suffered in preseason with Newcastle. His status remains up in the air heading into the Sept. 1 match against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
If Arena reverts to a standard four-man defense, Geoff Cameron and Jorge Villafaña seem assured of starting spots against the Ticos, at center back and left back, respectively. But Arena will have decisions to make on how to replace Brooks.
With neither Cameron nor Brooks in the Gold Cup-winning squad this past summer, Arena’s first-choice center back duo appeared to be Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler. Those two started and played 90 minutes in both the semifinal and final, though Matt Hedges and Matt Miazga also saw time during the tournament.
Gonzalez is the more established of the two, and would seemingly be the favorite to step in for Brooks and start alongside Cameron. But the Pachuca defender is also more comfortable as the right-sided center back; Besler is left-footed, and more comfortable on the left. It’s the left-sided spot that is now open as a result of Brooks’ injury.
However, Cameron could slide over to the left if Arena favors Gonzalez more than his other options. Cameron is an extremely versatile player, and played as the left center back in a three-man defense this past weekend for Stoke City against Everton.
Another option, though, could be Tim Ream, who played in the 1-1 qualifying draw against Mexico back in June. Ream, who plays for Fulham in the English second division, was not part of the off-year Gold Cup squad. He is left-footed, and could be the most natural replacement for Brooks.
The most likely scenario might be that Arena goes with two different partnerships, one for the home qualifier against Costa Rica and another for the trip to Honduras four days later. The U.S. boss showed a willingness to rotate his team for the last pair of qualifiers, with seven lineup changes for the game in Mexico City. Perhaps he’ll go with a Cameron-Ream partnership at home, but bring Gonzalez into the starting 11 for the away match.
Either way, Brooks is a significant loss. The U.S. is still far more likely than not to qualify for Russia, but there are certainly more questions marks at the back right now than there were before Brooks sunk to the turf with the thigh injury on Sunday.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.