John Brooks produced a Man of the Match performance against Paraguay in the final game of the Copa America group stage. It was a game that solidified his place as starting center-back for the US. Brooks followed that game with another outstanding outing against Ecuador, propelling the US to a semi-final match-up with Argentina.
It’s all a far cry from last summer, when Brooks received criticism for his play in the 2015 Gold Cup, most notably against Jamaica. In just a year, how did Brooks go from a lightning rod for criticism to a player that inspired a hashtag?
Brooks took a traditional European club development path with Hertha Berlin, playing with the U17 and U19 teams before making his senior team debut at the start of the 2012/13 season. Brooks played 29 games in the 2. Bundesliga as Hertha Berlin won promotion. Brooks began his initial Bundesliga campaign starting at center-back. Brooks fluctuated between success and set-backs in the 2013/14 season, from scoring a goal in his debut to falling out of favor his coach.
The 2014/15 season started the same way – with a post-World Cup Brooks spending time with the youth team – but a signature performance against Borussia Dortmund showed Brooks’ class. This past season, Brooks led Hertha to 7th place, its best finish since the 2008/09 season. The minor injuries persisted – Brooks only played 1800 minutes in 23 games – but when healthy, he started. His presence helped the Hertha Berlin defense allow the 5th-fewest goals and expected goals in the Bundesliga this past season.
On first glance, Brooks’ individual stats tell a consistent story over the past three seasons (all stats from whoscored.com.) On a per-90 minute basis, he averages a little over a tackle a game, makes 2 to 3 interceptions, probably commits a foul, clears the ball frequently, and wins roughly 3 out of 5 headers (frustrating for a defender who usually has the height advantage.)
Dig a little deeper, though, and you’ll see Brooks’ growing importance with Hertha Berlin. This past season, Hertha Berlin had close to 50% possession, up significantly from the 43% last season. As such, Brooks has had far more of the ball, and he’s thrived in this environment. He attempted 61 passes per-90, up from 39 the season before. The increased workload actually improved Brooks’ passing accuracy, too: short-passing went from 86% to 90%; long-passing (passes longer than 25 yards) from 45% to 63%.
This development would play a key role in the player who has dominated in Copa America.
Players develop at the club level. For US players abroad, they seemingly emerge out of nowhere for the national team. John Brooks debuted for the US in an August 2013 friendly against Bosnia, likely the first glimpse of the player for most US fans. It was, well, a 20-year-old playing center-back internationally for the first time. The Jozy Altidore hat-trick (the highlight of the Summer of Altidore) garnered the headlines, but as one would expect in a 4-3 game, the center backs didn’t bathe themselves in glory. Bosnia caught Brooks stepping up on the first goal and late to challenge a header on the third goal.
Unfortunately, Brooks appeared to lose his place in the starting lineup in the March 2014 friendly against Ukraine. Once again, Brooks’ positioning let him down: Ukraine grabbed the first goal from a direct ball when Brooks was too close to Oguchi Onyewu, and he was a step late to two challenges in an advanced position on the second goal.
At the 2014 World Cup, Brooks played just 45 minutes, but scored an iconic goal against Ghana (side note: I own this T-shirt.) Brooks moved in and out of the starting lineup, and re-emerged in the 1-1 draw against Switzerland in March 2015. The US played a man down for most of the second half, but held Switzerland scoreless. The highlight reel play would come that June, when Brooks scored against Holland. After winning a challenge, Brooks made a calm pass to Michael Bradley, who then distributed to DeAndre Yedlin. Brooks continued his run, and Yedlin would find him on a low cross for the goal. The goal was a reward for Brooks’ timing, strength, and commitment in the initial challenge.
Brooks followed up that performance with another 90 minutes, this time against Germany in a 2-1 US win. The center-back combo of Brooks and Ventura Alvarado shut down Germany in the second half, limiting them to few scoring chances. Remarkably, Alvarado was Brooks’ 6th center-back partner in just 12 caps. After this Germany game, Klinsmann stuck with the two young center-backs throughout the Gold Cup, a move that ultimately contributed to the US’ poor display in the tournament.
Fast forward a year. The Brooks-Cameron center-back pairing that’s gaining plaudits in this Copa America hadn’t played together at center-back since the Ghana World Cup game. What’s made a difference is the progress of individuals at their respective clubs. Yedlin locked down a right back starting role at loan-club Sunderland, ending his flirtation with right midfield. This enables Cameron to move inside with Brooks, while the versatile Fabian Johnson slides back from his usual left wing position at Gladbach to play left back.
The tactical set-up at Copa America also plays to Brooks’ strengths. Building off of Brooks’ increased responsibility with Hertha Berlin, Klinsmann has tasked his center-backs this summer with creating from the backline. Brooks and Cameron have excelled with this emphasis on vertical passing. It started with the 4-0 friendly win over Bolivia, where the two were close to perfect with their distribution:
Passing numbers are down in the Copa America, as the US has played numbers down for a large portion of the tournament. However, both center-backs continually find attackers – notably Bobby Wood – running the channels in behind the defense. Vitally, the US defense hasn’t slipped, either. The US has yet to allow a goal from the run of play, and Brooks had one of the defensive highlights of the tournament with his 1 v. 3 slide-tackle against Paraguay. Note the patience in the video below. Whereas Brooks of old might have challenged the initial ball, here he waits to limit Paraguay’s options. The tackle is a fantastic piece of athleticism, but it’s enabled by good decision making.
Even when playing with 10 men against Paraguay (a man down) or Ecuador (10 v 10), Brooks and Cameron have maintained defensive solidarity. Here are the defensive actions for those two games – the clearances and recoveries in and around the 18 stand out. Against Paraguay, Brooks even dominated in the air, rounding out a weaker part of his game.
In an already challenging tournament, the US will face its toughest test against Argentina. Regardless of the outcome, fans should feel confident about Brooks’ place at center-back for the rest of World Cup qualifying. The skill is there, and this Copa America is the signature proof point. When your club team is actually pleased with your international play, you’re doing something right.