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USMNT has a right back battle brewing

DeAndre Yedlin’s the starter for now, but Nick Lima and Reggie Cannon aren’t far behind

Panama v United States Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In October, Stars and Stripes FC readers overwhelmingly (95%) selected DeAndre Yedlin as the USMNT’s top right back. Yedlin seems to have the position locked down, although perhaps not for much longer.

Poor Premier League performances by Yedlin and impressive showings from Nick Lima suggest that the United States Men’s National Team could be on the verge of an intense competition for the starting right back spot. It is far from certain the Yedlin will be the man lining up on the right side of defense in the 2019 Gold Cup.

In the past year, the following right backs have earned USMNT call-ups: DeAndre Yedlin, Nick Lima, Reggie Cannon, Keegan Rosenberry, Shaq Moore, and Eric Lichaj. Shaq Moore is unlikely to be called up anytime soon, as he is currently playing for Levante’s reserve team: Atletico Levante UD (in the Spanish third division).

Eric Lichaj’s having a solid season for Hull City, but is 30 years old and was never highly rated by Jurgen Klinsmann or Bruce Arena. Keegan Rosenberry has yet to earn a USMNT cap and did little last season to suggest that he is better than Yedlin, Lima, Cannon, Moore, and Lichaj.

Timothy Chandler also remains an intriguing option, however he has yet to play during the 2018/2019 Bundesliga season. Chandler was initially expected to miss six months, after getting knee surgery in August, so he should return to training soon. It seems unlikely that Moore, Lichaj, Rosenberry, or Chandler will feature for the USMNT until after the 2019 Gold Cup (if at all).

Tyler Adams has been a national team regular since 2018 and is capable of playing at right back, but has predominantly featured as a defensive midfielder at both the club and international levels. For this article, let’s assume that USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter does not view Adams as a right back.

Berhalter suggested that he will use the tactics he utilized against Panama and Costa Rica in most matches. If that’s true, then it looks like he will be deploying an inverted right wingback. Nick Lima excelled in this role during January friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.

Lima was asked to play more centrally than right backs typically do (inverted) and made occasional late arriving runs to join the USMNT attack at the top of the opposition’s eighteen. Lima’s athleticism, solid communication from the USMNT backline, and the relative weakness of Panama and Costa Rica allowed him to flourish in this unusual role.

If Berhalter continues to ask his right back to play in such a manner, then there are three main competitors that could start during the 2019 Gold Cup: DeAndre Yedlin, Nick Lima, and Reggie Cannon.

Yedlin has played nearly every Premier League game for Newcastle United this season, but both he and the club have struggled. Even in what was arguably Newcastle’s best match of the season, a 2-1 home win over Manchester City on January 29th, Yedlin was quite inconsistent.

City’s lone goal came as the result of a cross to the back post, in which Yedlin failed to pick up David Silva. While Silva did not make clean contact with the cross, he redirected it to Sergio Aguero. Aguero easily scored from just a few yards out. Yedlin’s play in that match improved greatly after City’s goal, but it doesn’t change the fact that he made a crucial mistake.

More recently, Yedlin had one of his worst performances of the season in a 1-1 draw against Wolverhampton Wanderers on February 12. He was frequently caught out of position and the Wolves attackers dribbled by him with ease. Yedlin is not entirely to blame for his poor form, as it’s quite difficult for defenders to play well when their team is struggling. However, his recent performances are still disconcerting.

Last season, Nick Lima was one of the few bright spots on a San Jose Earthquakes team that was the worst in MLS. Lima is a good defender and demonstrated glimpses of the attacking prowess expected from a modern-day right back in the January friendlies.

His odds of becoming a USMNT starter will increase if he can better his offensive output from the 2018 MLS season (2 goals and 2 assists in 34 appearances).

With the Earthquakes adding head coach Matias Almeyda and players such as Cristian Espinoza (on loan from Villarreal), they seem to have become a better team. If Lima can improve upon his solid 2018 form, then it will be difficult for Gregg Berhalter to overlook him.

Reggie Cannon of FC Dallas could also emerge as the USMNT’s starting right back. The twice-capped 20-year-old did not appear in the January friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica, but has proven to be a top MLS defender. Cannon started all but one of Dallas’ 2018 MLS matches and was vital to the side that finished fourth in the Western Conference. He looked like an MLS veteran, in just his first season as a consistent starter, and supposedly attracted interest from several Liga MX teams.

Cannon’s impressive athleticism makes him well suited for Berhalter’s system. However, like Lima, Cannon’s chance to start would greatly improve if he can increase his offensive production (1 goal and 2 assists in 34 appearances during the 2018 MLS season).

For now, DeAndre Yedlin remains the USMNT’s starting right back. However, if his performances for Newcastle do not improve and Cannon or Lima excel in the early portion of the MLS season, then Yedlin may lose his starting job.

While many fans will be focusing on USMNT position battles at striker and centerback, leading up the 2019 Gold Cup, keep your eye on the emerging fight to be the first-choice right back.