When Geoff Cameron abruptly decided to stop speaking to the national soccer media in June -- a silence that extended until he chatted exclusively with ESPNFC last week -- theories abounded in press row about why a player who had been known as one of the most affable, accessible members of a U.S. squad full of them had suddenly gone silent.
Was Cameron unhappy with something one of us wrote? Or had the former third-round MLS SuperDraft pick let his success with Stoke City in England’s high-profile Premier League, where there’s virtually no interaction between players and the journalists who cover them, gone to his head?
"That's not what it was about at all," Cameron said via phone from his home outside Manchester. "It was nothing against the media or anyone in particular. There was a point in the summer I was just mentally fatigued coming off of 18 months of nonstop play, then joining up with the national team for three or four weeks, and I decided the best thing was to control what I could, put my head down and stay focused. And then it became more of a superstition than anything. I feel like whenever I do an interview, even for U.S. Soccer, I don’t play as well, or the team doesn’t play as well. So I decided I wasn’t going to do it anymore."
But there was a another, deeper reason Cameron went quiet: He really didn’t know what to say about being relegated to reserve duty with the Yanks.
"I kept getting asked, 'Why aren’t you playing center back? Why aren’t you starting?'" Cameron said. "All these questions, I didn’t have any answer for."
Since bursting onto the scene with the national team early last year, Cameron, whom the Houston Dynamo sold to Stoke for $2.7 million in August 2012, has established himself the most consistent American starter (goalkeepers aside) in a top-four European league.
Still, the rangy (6-foot-3) 28-year-old's ability to play several different positions actually ended up costing him the job he'd earned with the U.S. Although Cameron appeared in all but three of Stoke's league games in 2012-13, the Attleboro, Mass., native was a utility man as an EPL rookie under then-manager Tony Pulis. Pulis, who was replaced by Mark Hughes in May, used him at right and left back and in the midfield but only once at center back, the position Cameron played with the U.S. in his first 11 games under U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Cameron impressed in those early international matches despite lining up alongside five different partners in the middle and as a key new addition began to represent the changing face of Klinsmann’s evolving squad. But his lack of reps in central defense with Stoke eventually opened the door for MLS stars Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez to surpass him on Klinsmann’s center back depth chart.
"It's been tough with the national team. It’s been frustrating," Cameron said. "I was one of Jurgen’s mainstays, and then all of a sudden I kind of lost my position because I wasn’t playing center back and he wanted to give some other guys experience."
A few games at right back for the U.S. yielded mixed results -- no surprise considering Cameron was manning the spot only part time at Stoke. Pulis' old-school defensive approach, which usually involved the fullbacks booting the ball up the field whenever they were under pressure, didn’t help, either. It was a far cry from the play-out-the-back ethos being pushed by Klinsmann, who relies on his outside defenders to get forward frequently and provide width.
"I wasn't confident in playing right back last year,” Cameron said. “And with the style we played at Stoke, sometimes in a game I’d touch the ball maybe three or four times. I was just putting in a battle."
This season, though, things are different. Hughes, like Klinsmann an elite striker in the 1980s and ‘90s, favors a system similar to the German's. He’s also kept Cameron in one position, starting him at right back in each of the Potters' six EPL matches this season. Yet the U.S. defender admitted that he came into the last national team camp unsure of his role.
When Cameron reported for a pair of World Cup qualifiers earlier this month, it became clear that Klinsmann wasn’t planning to use him on the outside against Costa Rica and Mexico -- even after converted Seattle Sounders midfielder Brad Evans, who’d impressed at right back over the previous three qualifiers, withdrew from the squad with a calf injury.
So before the Yanks faced the Ticos, Cameron and Klinsmann had a heart-to-heart.
"I told Jurgen how I feel, that I'm frustrated because I’m playing week in and week out and then I come [into the national team] and I don’t even know where I’m playing or how you're feeling about me as a player," Cameron said. "He just reassured me that he does value me and my versatility. He said, 'Keep your head up, I know you’re disappointed, but you're right there, you're fighting for three positions, and that’s a good thing.'"
Cameron ended up starting in Costa Rica anyway, in midfield after Michael Bradley rolled his ankle in warm-ups. The yellow card he picked up in the 3-1 loss forced him to miss the World Cup berth-clinching win over El Tri four days later (Klinsmann will be happy to know that that Cameron watched only the first half of the Clasico, which aired at 1 a.m. in the U.K., because he needed his rest before training the next morning), but with Bradley still sidelined -- and with the competition at right back still wide-open -- Cameron is likely a shoo-in to be in the lineup for both games.
Not that he's taking anything for granted.
"I don’t think anything comes easy," Cameron said. "I've always worked for everything I've got. That's kind of how I look at life: You have to keep working, keep grinding out to get to where you want to be. For me, that’s going to the World Cup and being a regular starter there. I don’t just want to go and not play -- I want to be on the field at one of those three positions and experience it as a player. That’s been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, since my dad took me to the 1994 World Cup at the old Foxboro Stadium."
As for those who thought his silence was a sign he’d lost his humility?
"People can say I've become too big-time or whatever they want, but I'll never forget where I came from," Cameron said. "I'm a Boston boy. I came from pretty much nothing, and my parents put in a lot of effort to help me get to where I am today. I'll never forget that."
On that front, Cameron has plenty to talk about.