Cameron set to shine on Sunday

In his fourth year in Major League Soccer, Geoff Cameron has gone from being passed on 41 times in the MLS draft to the fringe of the US men’s national team. (Photo credit: Bob Levey/Getty Images)

When thinking of everyone who will take part in the 2011 MLS Cup Final, there is a list of stars who will garner headlines, and a pair of Hall of Fame-worthy coaches who will be looking to make history. What is easy to overlook is the young American standout who has the chance to steal center stage and prove than not all the MLS Cup stars are wearing LA Galaxy jerseys.

Geoff Cameron can play any position you could ask, but this year, as he did during an MLS Best XI-worthy 2009 season, Cameron made a successful move to centerback, where he helped the Dynamo turn around a mediocre season and helped turn the Dynamo defense into a championship-worthy unit.

Cameron doesn’t carry the name recognition of players like David Beckham and Landon Donovan, but the reality is he is a player American soccer fans should be getting excited about. He has all the tools to be a dynamic national team defender, though he remains one of several young standout defenders (like Omar Gonzalez and George John) who are waiting for phone calls from US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Cameron just might be the best of the bunch because of his combination of athleticism, speed, technical ability and 6-foot-3 size. A midfielder by nature, Cameron’s first exposure to the centerback position in his entire soccer-playing career came in his rookie season with the Dynamo. Just four years later, the 26-year-old is playing centerback well enough to be considered one of the best defenders in the league – a player with the tools to become a US national team regular.

“He’s just that kind of player who can adapt to anywhere you put him,” said Dynamo head coach Dom Kinnear. “He has qualities to be effective in multiple positions and you’ve seen him really come into his own with the help of players like (center half partner) Bobby Boswell.”

As important a figure as Cameron is to Houston’s championship hopes, he was almost never a Dynamo player. A relatively unknown prospect from the University of Rhode island, Cameron caught the eye of Kinnear and then-Houston assistant (and current Portland Timbers head coach) John Spencer at the 2008 MLS Combine. They noticed a player with good size and an impressive turn of pace who was a natural at getting forward as well as putting shots on goal.

With five goals, Cameron finished tied for his team’s lead in scoring despite ending the season in central defense. (Photo credit: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images)

Cameron did enough to stick in the minds of Kinnear and Spencer on draft day, but with no picks until the No. 42 overall, the final pick in the third round, the Dynamo coaches figured he would be gone by then. When Cameron went undrafted for 41 picks, Kinnear and Spencer still had to try and choose between Cameron and an favored player who had fallen. Ultimately it was those surging runs forward and and some impressive long-range shots that led Kinnear and Spencer to agree to take a chance on him.

“When you’re drafting a player you never know for sure how they’re going to turn out, but we could tell early on we had a player in Geoff,” said Spencer. “I remember early on, when he told him ‘If you listen, and you learn, and you work hard, one day you’ll be on the national team and you’ll be playing in a World Cup.

“He looked at me like I was crazy,” Spencer said with a laugh. “Here he was, the 42nd pick in the draft, from a small school, and now he’s being told he could be special. You see him now and realize he has done the work and is really putting things together.”

Cameron’s draft day experience was a unique one. Unlike top prospects who attended the draft in person and walked to the draft-day podium wearing new suits and making speeches, Cameron was in the basement of his family’s home. He went undrafted during the televised portion of the draft, but his father followed online and was the first to let Cameron know he was selected by the Houston Dynamo – the same team that had beaten his local team, the New England Revolution, in consecutive MLS Cup titles in 2006 and 2007.

“My mother was all worried about me moving to Texas by myself because I was the baby in the family,” Cameron said. “My dad pulled me aside and said, ‘There’s no doubt in my mind you can do this. Go in there with the same mentality that you went with in college and you’re going to earn a starting position. Go in there with the attitude that nobody’s going to beat you.’

“That’s the mentality I’ve had,” Cameron said. “I hate losing more than anything, I hate when guys beat me and I take pride in hating that.”

Cameron may have thought it crazy to consider a future with the national team four years ago, but today he acknowledges that he is waiting for that call from Klinsmann. He is focused on the Dynamo, but believes he is capable of adding to the one national team appearance he already has on his resume.

“You control what you can control and I have no control of who (Jurgen Klinsmann) calls in and what he likes and who he likes,” Cameron said. “My job is to make sure I’m doing well with the Dynamo.

“I enjoy learning every single day when you’re along Bobby (Boswell), along Eddie (Robinson), it’s good for me to soak that in and get better and better because I think to be good at a position you have to take all the information and soak it up and try to learn as much as possible."

On Sunday, Cameron will be playing in his first MLS Cup Final, The boy who grew up watching the league from the suburbs of Boston will have a chance to lift his own MLS Cup. Sunday will be the perfect stage to show the masses what more and more people are starting to believe: that Cameron is a special talent ready to bloom.

The player who almost went undrafted four years ago, and once laughed at the idea of being a national team player, is on the brink of stardom. Sunday’s MLS Cup Final could be his coming out party.