USMNT centre-backs Zimmerman, Robinson and Long prove themselves in MLS as compatriots rush to Europe – Reuters Sports News
In its last three World Cup appearances, the United States men’s national team averaged 4.3 players per team with Champions League experience. Making the number of those teams were Jonathan Spector and Julian Green, who had combined for a total of 23 minutes in the competition at the time of their inclusion in the USA squad.
In the last international window, you could count seven players totaling minutes on the biggest stage in European football, and that was without Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest and striker of FC Salzburg Brenden Aaronson. There may not yet be a consensus on USA manager Gregg Berhalter’s best XI, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that nine of the 11 players on the pitch in the USA’s opener at Qatar 2022 will be based in Europe.
The two exceptions? It would be at centre-back, where Nashville SC captain Walker Zimmerman and Atlanta United wonderkid Miles Robinson have established themselves as the main defenders in the squad, with New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long looking best placed to dislodge one of them.
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As American players increasingly head overseas and at a younger age, how did three Major League Soccer-based players aged 25, 28 and 29 sew up the top three spots in the center-back depth chart ahead of veteran VfL Wolfsburg John Brooks or promising TSG Hoffenheim’s Chris Richards on loan from Bayern Munich?
“Major League Soccer is open to giving young players the opportunity to be on the pitch,” Berhalter told ESPN. « Anytime you get young players on the pitch, there’s a huge development curve, and you see that with a lot of our young players. »
Since age 23, Zimmerman has averaged 2,130 minutes of league play per season. Robinson has averaged 2,131 league minutes over the past three years, aged 22, 23 and 24. Long has averaged 1,818 minutes per year since his 24-year-old season in 2017, despite only playing five times in 2021 after suffering an Achilles tear in May. Take that lost season out of the equation and his average jumps to 2,227 MLS minutes per year.
This opportunity for regularity is not given to players who cross the Atlantic. Mark McKenzie left the Philadelphia Union in January 2021 as a highly touted 21-year-old center back. In the season and a half since joining Genk, he racked up 1,729 Belgian Pro League minutes – although it should be noted that these would be considered his 21 and 22 seasons.
« It’s about being in the right place, » said the former USMNT centre-back and veteran MLS defender. Michel Parkhurst told ESPN. « You can go to England and be in a great team in a great place, or you can go to England in a terrible team where you’re fighting relegation and the coach doesn’t like you.
“That’s the risky part. It’s not, ‘Are they good enough?’ It’s, ‘Are they landing in the right place that sets them up for success?’ »
But there’s more than just opportunity that explains the growth that Zimmerman, Robinson and Long have achieved in MLS. Selected ahead of their international teammates earning minutes in La Liga and the Bundesliga, this trio didn’t just grow up in America; they thrived.
« MLS is a league that prioritizes spending money on attacking players, » Parkhurst said. “All the best players in the league, for the most part, are wingers and No.10s and No.9s. As a central defender, you play against the best players in the league. »
It’s a sentiment that Berhalter echoed.
« Miles, Walker and Aaron, » Berhalter said, « they’re going to be playing against really good players, and that really helps their game develop. »
Of the 65 Designated Players listed before the start of the 2022 season, only nine have played in non-attacking positions. Say what you will about the league’s level and salary structure, it’s focused on bringing in hard-hitting offensive talent, and its defensemen are better off for it.
Battle-tested and with a World Cup looming at the end of the year providing the biggest stage to show off their skills, could Zimmerman, Robinson and Long join their colleagues overseas in 2023? For Zimmerman and Long, at 28 and 29, respectively, this ship may have sailed.
« I was at that time… where it is now or never, » Parkhurst said. “I think I was 24 or 25, and I was about to sign another four-year contract [in MLS]so at that point, it’s like, ‘I’m going to be too old [to go to Europe].’ So there is definitely a time limit where you are no longer attractive and the opportunity is not there. »
Recently aged 25 and apparently with a year remaining on his contract after the 2022 season, Robinson now has a decision to make. Is he staying in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his defensive partners in the USMNT and lifers in MLS, or is he trying his luck in Europe?
« I really think Miles could play in any league in the world, » Parkhurst said. « I don’t think he’s the end product, there are little things he needs to work on and improve on, but I’ve never played with someone who is a better defender, I haven’t never seen a better one-on-one defender.
« Usually it’s the physical tools that would keep you out of certain leagues, but those guys are three of the most athletic defenders I’ve ever seen. »