United States men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter said that concerns over John Brooks' ability to play in a system that employs a high defensive line were what led to his exclusion from the last three World Cup qualifying windows.
Heading into qualifying, Brooks was viewed as the team's most talented defender, but some shaky performances in the September window, in particular matches against Canada and Honduras, put his place in the team under threat.
Brooks was injured during the October window, but when the November window arrived, Berhalter decided to bring in other center backs, alluding to Brooks' lack of form. In an interview on Fútbol Americas, Berhalter said he explained his reasoning to Brooks prior to that window.
"I called [Brooks] before the November camp, and I said, 'John, listen, here are some things that are lacking in your game, that I don't see fit our game model, and that we need to address.'"
When asked by co-host Herculez Gomez what aspects of Brooks' game concerned him, Berhalter referred to the fact that VfL Wolfsburg, Brooks' club at the time, didn't employ a similar system to the U.S.
Berhalter said: "We want to play with a very high line, right? So ideally, if he went into a team that plays with a high line, and we can see that every week, how he's dealing with space behind him, it would really help us get a picture of what he can do for our team. So, he hadn't been doing that with Wolfsburg."
Not only was Brooks not called in for the remainder of World Cup qualifying, but he was omitted for a series of four games last June.
"We go into these games in the summer where we wanted to take a look at a guy like Cameron Carter-Vickers. We wanted to take a look at a guy like Erik Palmer-Brown because John has the body of work that we've seen."
Brooks is currently without a club after his contract with Wolfsburg expired, though he has been linked with Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. Berhalter said he's taking a wait and see approach as relates to the defender.
"To me, it's a question of: Let's see where John ends up," Berhalter said. "Let's see what club he ends up at and let's see how his form is throughout the fall. And then we can evaluate."
Berhalter also spoke about the team's situation at striker, where no player has really stepped up and made the position theirs. Among the candidates, FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira had made the most of his opportunities, but the fact that they've come against CONCACAF opposition - including a four-goal outburst in the CONCACAF Nations League against Grenada - hasn't erased doubts as to whether Ferreira can excel against higher level opposition.
"We have guys that know how we want to play, have been in our system and are candidates to be the number nine," he said. "And then I think as we lead into this tournament, we're going to see who's in the best form. I think that's how you pick players."
Berhalter added that at the World Cup, his choice of starting striker could be situational.
"You could say, 'All right, when in this match, we may want a more physical profile and the next match we wait we may go for more players better at pressing,'" he said. "I mean, the one criteria they have to have is the ability to score goals at the international level. That has to be."
The U.S. manager admitted he has no shortage of options, including Ferreira, Augsburg's Ricardo Pepi, Union Berlin's Jordan Pefok, Norwich City's Josh Sargent and the Colorado Rapids Gyasi Zardes. At this stage, Pepi, despite failing to score for Augsburg after his move, remains in the running.
"I think Pepi's ability in the penalty box is really good for a young player," said Berhalter. "His ability to get shots off really quickly is a good quality. He's good running behind the line, dynamic player. Jesus, unbelievable understanding of the game of soccer. Also has worked on runs behind the backline now. I think in the penalty box is where he needs to keep working and I know in Dallas, they're working hard with him."