Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
Months after the 2014 World Cup, when the dust began to settle on an aging, predominantly North America-based USMNT, before Christian Pulisic moved to Germany, at a time when Julian Green passed for the U.S’s brightest (and only) young European hope, Cameron Carter-Vickers emerged. The big center back quickly became one of the faces of what looked at the time to be a movement of young USMNTers doing it in Europe, a movement that turned out to be the flimsy precursor to the real thing taking place now. The other European academy-dwellers of that class—Gedion Zelalem, Mario Rodriguez, Emerson Hyndman, Rubio Rubin, Russell Canouse—have all faded, everyone except Carter-Vickers and Zack Steffen. Carter-Vickers now has a thriving senior career for a team that will play in Europe this season, and he’ll almost certainly be on the plane to Qatar. However, his path to the World Cup has been remarkably circuitous, and for someone with such a promising start to his career, Carter-Vickers has had to fight for a long time to reach this point.
Carter-Vickers earned so much early attention because he played for Tottenham. For 13 years, CCV was a Spurs player at some level. He joined the academy when he was 11, and his link to the club only officially ended two months ago. A 16-year-old Carter-Vickers started for the Tottenham academy team in a win over the U.S. U-17s in Florida in the summer of 2014, and once U.S. youth national team coaches discovered he was eligible for the U.S. (his father is former Nuggets first-rounder Howard Carter), they quickly brought him into the fold. Within a year, he suited up as the youngest member of the U-20 World Cup squad, made the U-23s, and was called up into the Tottenham first team by then-manager Mauricio Pochettino. He seemed to have earned the trust of all the right people, and a Premier League debut seemed surely to follow.
Instead, he languished. CCV clawed his way to four first-team appearances in the 2016–17 campaign, two in each of the domestic cup competitions, but he never truly broke through. It did not help that Tottenham was reaching their peak as a club during Carter-Vickers’s ascendancy. Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen had the center back spots locked up, and they allowed only 26 league goals that season. The team was challenging for EPL titles, Champions Leagues. They did not have the luxury of forking over serious minutes to a 19-year-old understudy, though Carter-Vickers was still good enough to remain with the first team through the campaign. The next season, he took the first of what would turn out to be seven loan assignments.
CCV made 17 Championship appearances for Sheffield United in the first half of the 2017–18 season, then 17 appearances for Ipswich Town (nickname: Tractor Boys) in the second half. His teams finished 10th and 12th, respectively. He spent the entirety of the next season with Swansea, who finished 10th in the Championship. Denied again at Spurs, Carter-Vickers marched back out on loan, once again splitting the 2019–20 Championship season between Stoke City (15th) and Luton Town (19th).
In the meantime, Tottenham fired Pochettino and replaced him with José Mourinho. It didn’t matter. Carter-Vickers was sent back to the Championship for the 2020–21 season, heading to Bournemouth. Unlike his previous teams, Bournemouth was actually good enough to qualify for the promotion playoffs. Carter-Vickers played admirably for the Cherries, and though he could not drag them to the Premier League, he did catch the eye of new Tottenham manager Nuno Espírito Santo. He played once for Spurs, in the Conference League, before again going out on loan, this time to Celtic. CCV absolutely thrived at Celtic, helping them win the domestic double. A bunch of EPL teams tried to buy him from Tottenham this summer, but after spending time at seven different clubs in five seasons, he decided to stick with Celtic, signing there permanently.
That is a considerable amount of wandering for a 24-year-old player to have gone through. It is not easy to go on loan once, let alone seven times, to clubs that have no real investment in your long-term career. Dozens of very good players get stuck in loan purgatory and never break out. The Championship is a pretty brutal league, and it is a real credit to Carter-Vickers’s talent that he’s played near-full seasons with each of the clubs he’s been loaned out to. He had to impress seven different managers and scrap for minutes, but he has now found a home. Carter-Vickers also began this World Cup cycle on the periphery of the USMNT, yet he’s also scrapped his way into that picture despite never playing in qualifying. With Miles Robinson out, he’s clawed his way into the team and even started the team’s two most recent games.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
CCV has only ever played for anglophone teams. However:
We went extremely long up top, so I can keep this reasonably brief. Carter-Vickers is not a particularly tall center back, though he’s calm on the ball and is a plus passer. His real strength is his athleticism, which is not altogether surprising since he’s the son of an NBA player and was a decorated youth basketball player in his own right. Carter-Vickers is an aerial menace in front of both goals, and I think his aptitude is best summed up by his former U-20 coach Tab Ramos:
“We put Cameron on the near post for all defensive corners,” Ramos continues. “It would hit his head and go 40 yards the other way. It always went as far as if someone had cleared it with their foot. The sound that the ball made every time Cameron headed the ball, we felt pain for the ball. That’s something we remember about Cameron — someone will hit the ball hard, but he’ll head it away even harder.”
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Carter-Vickers will be 24 when the World Cup kicks off, and he has been on the radar for almost a decade, so he earns a 1,174 out of 1,723. Though CCV has made most of his appearances in the English second-division, his lone season of top flight experience with Celtic showed that he can thrive against top-level talent. He was maybe the best center back in the whole-ass league last year, and a bunch of Premier League teams wanted him for a reason. CCV has the immense benefit of having an elite skill (prowling the skies like a condor) that many teams in the Prem could use, and while he is probably happy to have a permanent club, it does seem likely that bigger teams will continue to circle. He has the talent to hack it in the EPL, and while one could raise an eyebrow at his below-average height, he’s performed well in the equally physical Championship.
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
During Carter-Vickers’s loan spell at Stoke City, he played right back in four Championship games. He also played right back in the U-21 Premier League for Spurs. Sounds like he can play right back to me.
He’s a center back who can pass and he can score on set pieces with his big head, so, well.
Chris Richards and Walker Zimmerman are currently penciled in as the two starters in Qatar, though I would not be surprised if Carter-Vickers pushes them. At worst, he’s the third-choice center back. Robinson’s injury really opened the door here, as the Atlanta United player formed strong partnerships with both Zimmerman and Richards and seemed to be one of the most obvious starters on the team. Gregg Berhalter is wedded to Aaron Long, who is not the same player after an injury of his own, but CCV is obviously better and more athletic. Unlike Richards, he is also a locked-in starter for his club every single week. Fellow years-of-wandering-ass center back Erik Palmer-Brown has also finally blossomed as a first-teamer after a tortuous journey of his own, though CCV has the edge on EPB. I think he’ll play in Qatar.