The United States men’s national team’s exclusion of John Brooks has been a topic of conversation during this final World Cup qualifying window. A mainstay in USMNT squads since the 2014 World Cup cycle, Brooks hasn’t appeared for the national team since September 2021. There are a few reasons for his absence. Brooks fell out of favor at Wolfsburg, and parts of his playing style — namely ball retention — don’t suit Gregg Berhalter’s system. But the biggest reason is the emergence of a central defensive pairing that can’t be broken in Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman.
International soccer doesn’t stand still, and when Brooks was missing time, Zimmerman and Robinson were forging a partnership that has become crucial to a USMNT side on the doorstep of World Cup qualification. The Zimmerman-Robinson pairing started to get its feet at the 2021 Gold Cup, but Zimmerman’s hamstring injury in the final group stage game meant that James Sands partnered Robinson to the eventual victory over Mexico in the final.
Brooks then came back in for the first two games of World Cup qualifying in the fall, but a horrendous first half for the United States in Ricardo Pepi’s coming out party vs. Honduras saw him subbed out before Zimmerman took the job back in the October international window and ran with it. After the Panama victory on Sunday night, Robinson and Zimmerman have now started eight matches together during which they kept six clean sheets and conceded just two goals, More importantly, the United States has gone undefeated in those eight matches. It’s a pairing that, if healthy, can’t be broken up.
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Providing an imposing presence in the air, Robinson and Zimmerman complement Tyler Adams in the defensive midfield perfectly. If an opponent comes through the center of the pitch, generally Adams is there to clean things up as shown by his 34 tackles won and 77 recoveries. Because of Adams, Zimmerman and Robinson don’t make many clearances as Adams controls the ground and they control the air.
The chart below demonstrates just how effective the duo is heading the ball as both win more than 70 percent of their aerial duels while being involved in a ton of them.
Panama crossed the ball 17 times before Robinson was withdrawn in the 65th minute, and they only completed four of them. During that time, the duo won five headers combined to ensure Zack Steffen didn’t have to do too much on a shaky night in net. But this is by design as Adams was leading the team in recoveries when Robinson was withdrawn.
Once Robinson was subbed, the US did concede a goal via a free kick and header by Anibal Godoy, but it’s tough to maintain focus during 90 minutes of a blowout. What’s clear is that Berhalter’s defense behind Adams feels settled heading into the World Cup. On a USMNT team with plenty of European club connections, Zimmerman and Robinson (who both play in Major League Soccer) show that everyone on the roster is on Berhalter’s radar.
The USMNT wrap up qualifying and can officially punch their ticket to Qatar 2022 on Wednesday against Costa Rica. The match is streaming on Paramount+.