Form. It’s a simple four-letter word and if you follow soccer you’ll read and hear about it plenty. Some analysts often seem like they’re obsessed with it.
Who’s in form? Who’s out of form? Who’s form has dipped? Who’s in the form of their life?
Does it all matter? It all depends.
“Alexi Lalas likes to say, ‘form is fallacy,’ but the one position where form matters is center forward,” former U.S. striker and current ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman told me in a phone interview earlier this week. “If you’ve got a guy coming into a World Cup that can’t stop scoring that’s a good thing. He’s confident. The one position where Jurgen Klinsman, naming his roster, might take a flier is forward. He’s an ex-forward. He understands the confidence level.”
Form, as it pertains to the American striking pool, will be something to monitor into the build-up to the World Cup next June. Most projections for the 23-man U.S. roster for Brazil, including our own, anticipate Klinsmann naming four strikers to the team. Chances are, only one will play on the field at given time, given the German coach’s preference for a 4-2-3-1 system.
For argument’s sake, let’s not list Landon Donovan as a forward. Although he can play there expect the all-time U.S. leading scorer to play in a wide attacking role. We will, however, list Clint Dempsey as a striker, even if he’ll likely play in a withdrawn role behind the lead forward — namely Altidore.
At the moment, the form of those two players, Altidore and Dempsey, is worrisome. Yes, it’s a long time before the World Cup and lots can (and will) change between now and late May but consider: Dempsey has yet to log a goal or an assist since moving to the Seattle Sounders in the summer — a span of 561 minutes. Meanwhile Altidore is scoreless in the Premier League since moving to Sunderland — rooted in last place in the table.
The Altidore situation at Sunderland might not improve between now and May. Sure it’s only eight games, but the club is seven points from safety from relegation. More than that, the club is already on its second manager, Gus Poyet, after firing Italian crazy man Paolo Di Canio. Under both managers Altidore has gotten minutes, but he’s often isolated by himself alone in the attack fending off multiple defenders 30-40 yards away from the goal.
The contrast in Altidore’s previous season, when he scored 31 times for AZ in the Netherlands — a record for Americans in Europe — is jarring.
“Come on man, the bulk of what you do is scoring goals, (at Sunderland) he’s not even getting chances,” said Twellman, who noted he wasn’t in favor of Altidore’s move to Sunderland ahead of a World Cup year. “It’s very difficult for a center forward to go from 31 goals to nothing.”
Altidore followed up his great season in the Netherlands with goals in five straight games for the U.S. this summer including a stunning hat trick against now-World Cup bound Bosnia. This run snapped an international goal-scoring drought for Altidore that dated back to November 2011. With an in-form Altidore at the top of the attack, the U.S. is a much more dangerous and dynamic team.
“He’s an X-factor. If he’s scoring goals like he was this summer, they’re a different team with Michael Bradley and everybody else behind hiim. Then your target guy can occupy two guys,” Twellman said. “I know what Jurgen wants, he wants (Altidore) to be tested every day and round out his game. In his eyes it’s more in Sunderland than Holland. For me I want Jozy scoring goals and extremely confident.”
Confidence is something Dempsey has never lacked on the soccer field, but injuries and the adjustment to a new league — as well as wearing the mantle of highest-paid player in MLS — appear to have worn on him. The Sounders have lost four straight games heading into the final weekend of the season.
Twellman, a teammate with Dempsey at the New England Revolution, expects him to go on loan to a European club team in the MLS winter break.
“It’s been a little frustrating for Clint as much as U.S. Soccer fans are frustrated,” he said. “Knowing Clint Dempsey very well, it’s extremely frustrating. … there are some growing pains, but I’m not concerned. The Clint Dempsey I know is someone who will get fit and in shape.”
Twellman noted that Dempsey the last two summers moved from Fulham to Tottenham at the end of the European transfer window, then moved from Spurs to the Sounders, meaning he hadn’t trained with the first team of his next club, which could be a factor in his temporary dip in form.
Another U.S. player in a frustrating position is Brek Shea, who can’t get on the field at Stoke City. Although not a striker, the versatile Texan is trying to work out a loan to boost his World Cup stock.
On the opposite side of the spectrum is Aron Jóhannsson. The 22-year-old keeps scoring at Altidore’s old club, AZ. He scored his first goal for the U.S. last week vs. Panama and carried that back to the Dutch Eredivisie, where he’s scored seven times in the league. He increased his overall total to 13 in 17 games with a goal Thursday for AZ in the Europa League against Shaktar Karagandy.
Odds are he’ll be included for the U.S. team in Brazil.
“He’s going to be a factor,” Twellman said. “Against Jamaica he was nervous. He had some very good chances, in Holland he’s burying those. The form he’s in, the way he’s scoring goals, he’ll play a factor no doubt about it.”
Jóhannsson, who was born in Alabama and grew up in Iceland, pledged his future international career for the U.S. At the moment he only has four caps and by the time the World Cup rolls around he’ll probably have barely a dozen to his name. Taking strikers to the World Cup with minimal experience at the international level hasn’t stopped the U.S. in the past.
Here’s a quick look at the U.S. strikers from the previous three World Cups and their caps at the time of the tournament.
- 2002: McBride, Joe-Max Moore (95), Clint Mathis (19), Landon Donovan (20), Brian McBride (58); Josh Wolff (16).
- 2006: Eddie Johnson (18), Brian Ching (20), Wolff (47), McBride(92), Donovan (81).
- 2010: Herculez Gomez (4); Edson Buddle (3); Jozy Altidore (25); Robbie Finley (6).
Clint Mathis and Donovan were success stories for the U.S. on the way to the 2002 quarterfinals, with each player getting on the scoreboard with important goals. The inexperienced group Bob Bradley picked eight years later in South Africa were less successful.
It’s next to impossible to extrapolate what sort of impact, if any, Johannsson will have in Brazil aside from that he’ll be another option. His form will certainly create more internal competition in the U.S. camp.
“If I’m the Herculez Gomezes of the world, the Chris Wondolowskis … they’ve got competition,” Twellman said.
However it shakes out over the next seven months, Johannsson’s production makes Altidore’s struggles to adapt at Sunderland much more tolerable as we zero in on Brazil.
Since I had him on the phone, I wanted to ask Twellman his opinion on the wild results in CONCACAF last week, which saw the U.S.’s last-second win over Panama keep Mexico alive for the World Cup.
“This is the reality,and everyone laughes, I don’t care about Mexico,” Twellman said. “I don’t root for them or against them. I just root for the U.S.”
He agreed that Mexico in the World Cup makes CONCACAF stronger.
“A bunch of ex-players said they wanted Mexico out. I was more amazed,” Twellman said. “I was more impressed with what the U.S. did. If the situation was flipped, I’m not sure Mexico plays the game out.”
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