In this week’s edition of his column, ESPN’s lead Bundesliga commentator Derek Rae makes the case for the out-of-favor United States men’s national team defender John Brooks as he readies himself for his last two appearances in the green of VfL Wolfsburg.
The twice-weekly specialist German football magazine, Kicker, doesn’t sugar-coat when it comes to judging players’ performances in the Bundesliga. In accordance with the Schulnote (school grades) system, every player who starts or has significant game time is allocated a score. One is the very best and reserved for something truly out of this world, while six is abject or wretched by comparison.
This past weekend, John Anthony Brooks (as he is formally referred to in Germany), who scored his first goal of the season in Wolfsburgs’s 1-1 draw away to VfB Stuttgart, received a strong 2.5 and the Kicker player-of-the-match award. It wasn’t only because of his powerful, downward header from a Maximilian Arnold corner. Brooks shut down Stuttgart’s giant and substantial striker Sasa Kalajdzic and deserved the plaudits that came his way.
Saturday represented perhaps the high point for Brooks in his final season with Wolfsburg, for whom he has two matches left before his contract expires. His farewell game will be at home against Rekordmeister Bayern Munich on May 14.
It has been a mixed bag of a campaign for the 29-year-old Berliner, for club as well as for country, but perhaps not entirely in the way you might think.
His recent omission from the U.S. national team has been well-enough documented by outlets who focus exclusively on that side’s inner workings. My focus as a commentator and columnist remains the Bundesliga, which I’m sure you’ll agree is a very high standard of club football. The undeniable fact is, amid all the talk of poor form at times, Brooks has been only one of a couple of Americans (with fellow defender Chris Richards) to be able to call himself a regular most weeks in the Oberhaus of German football. In 2022, his performances have been mostly stable, playing for a team collectively performing below expectations.
There have been lows, of course. Commentating on the recent 6-1 defeat at Borussia Dortmund, when Brooks suffered throughout, I feared for his Kicker mark. Indeed, it came through as a dreaded six, though December was when things really started to go awry for him. Substituted at the interval in Mainz, with Wolfsburg already 2-0 down, coach Florian Kohfeldt then kept Brooks on the bench for two straight games. It was around this time that the widely read tabloid Bild began to write about him becoming a headache for the club.
Much of this had to do with Brooks’ high-earner status in the final year of his contract, despite it being the sort of headache every club contends with every year. Wolfsburg, in line with most Bundesliga clubs, must keep refreshing financially and consequently in a playing sense and in March, it was no surprise when it was announced that the relationship would end after five years. Bild also suggested that Brooks doesn’t do as much as his teammates in terms of activities off the pitch or with the media. It’s true that “Jay” (his nickname among friends and in the dressing room) is not one to give frequent quotes, but in my view, he’s just a quiet, reserved, family kind of guy. A gentle giant but one with inner steel on the pitch as Wolfsburg, Hertha Berlin and USA fans have seen for themselves.
On the day of the USMNT squad announcement in March, I did manage to get his reaction to being left out again. Brooks said while he accepted the decision of coach Gregg Berhalter, “I won’t accept that I can’t change this before the final World Cup roster selections.”
He continued: “There should be no questions about my desire to play for this team. My plan is to fight as hard as I can and make it back to the USMNT.” Brooks then went on to say his American identity is at stake, “an identity some have questioned over many years because I grew up a military kid in Germany.”
This last sentence offers an insight into the soul of the man. I mentioned earlier he is a Berliner and proud of that, too, but he also feels intensely American and attended a U.S. school in the German capital growing up.
Brooks lived the dream of so many Americans at the World Cup in 2014, as well as literally turning his own from a couple of nights prior, into glorious reality. The roaring voice of my friend and ESPN commentary colleague Ian Darke will forever accompany that magical moment for player and country: “It’s John Brooks! It’s John Brooks for the USA!” In 2022, Brooks is the seasoned veteran peering in from the outside, but giving his all to get back in, while Berhalter prefers younger players who he feels better fit his Plan A, front-foot approach.
There are many reasons why it’s premature to call time on Brooks at international level. For starters, he’s a left-footed player who’s good on the ball and in the air. He has prospered on the World Cup stage, has 45 caps to his name, 214 Bundesliga appearances and he’s 29 — not 39. Is the U.S. good enough to discard that level of know-how, especially against better teams, when the ability to sit deep in a compact fashion for extended periods will be critical?
Unlike at Wolfsburg, where budgets play a part in decision making, the USMNT has no such worries. You don’t have to jettison senior players due to wage constraints, you simply pick the best players and squad available to you.
As I write this, I have no information regarding where Brooks will be playing his club football next season. There is a chance it may not be Germany for the first time since breaking through with Hertha. But it seems incongruous that when the USA team kicks off at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Nov. 21, a player of Brooks’ experience and quality might be viewing from afar — and not because of his choosing.