U.S. striker Jozy Altidore strained his hamstring in the first half of his team’s 2-1 win over Ghana Monday in the World Cup and he’ll sit out Sunday’s crucial match against Portugal. The rest of his World Cup is in doubt. Other than Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey, Altidore is the most irreplaceable player on Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man roster in Brazil.
For better or worse Klinsmann is committed to a 4-4-2 “diamond midfield” with Altidore and Dempsey as the two forwards. Altidore lacks a true like-for-like replacement, but unless Klinsmann decides to go total soccer MacGyver and tinker with the whole lineup, let’s try to figure out who’ll start up top next to Dempsey on Sunday in the Amazon. (6 p.m., ESPN).
Option 1: Play Clint Dempsey alone up top/Start Graham Zusi
Pros: The U.S. feels most balanced in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Kyle Beckerman/Jermaine Jones in holding roles, freeing up Michael Bradley. Zusi looked sharp as a sub on Monday vs. Ghana. … If, on a whim, Sepp Blatter decides World Cup group matches that end in a draw are to be decided by freestyle rap battles Dempsey gives the U.S. a decided advantage.
Cons: Digging through USMNT game logs dating back to the 2010 World Cup cycle, it’s hard to find an instance where Dempsey began a game as a lone striker. The closest he came to playing “lead” forward was a 3-1 loss to Costa Rica in 2013 where he began slightly more advanced than Landon Donovan. … Dempsey could play lone striker, but coming off a broken nose — even as tough as he is — there’s a chance he’s less than 100 percent. Playing striker alone requires lots of energy, this isn’t doubting Dempsey — just being practical. … Dempsey is much better playing off a lead striker throughout his history and isn’t exactly a speed demon breaking on the counter attack.
Option 2: Start Aron Johannsson in place of Altidore
Pros: He should be sharp after 29-goal campaign for AZ in the Netherlands. … Flashed an eye for goal inside the box, if YouTube clips are to be believed. … Given how Portugal played vs. Germany, Johannsson’s flashy style could easily win a penalty kick.
Cons: Doesn’t appear to be a player who contributes much outside the penalty box. … Struggled mightily coming on for Altidore, trying to win balls and hold up the play. … Ultimately his game is a little too similar to Dempsey’s — a rangy forward with high technical skill with an assortment of cutbacks and tricks inside the box.
Option 3: Start Chris Wondolowski in place of Altidore
Pros: Although not the quickest player over short distances, he’s 6-foot-1 and is a capable scorer inside the box. … Probably the best option Klinsmann has for a striker to “hold up play” and win balls near midfield.
Cons: “Smart” American soccer fans would be mad if “MLS’s own Chris Wondolowski” started because: MLS. … Without “service” in the box, Wondolowski’s contribution offensively will be minimal.
Option 4: Start Julian Green
Pros: No idea, I’ve only seen him play about 32 minutes of actual soccer.
Cons: See above.
What ifs scenarios
Klinsmann played in three World Cups and three European Championships, he also coached Germany at the 2006 World Cup. He knows international tournaments inside-and-out. So the coach is all too well aware how injuries have the tendency to force changes to the best laid plans. That said, any team would be forced to scramble if, after three years of planning, its lead striker goes down to a hamstring minutes 25 minutes into the first game. Granted Altidore isn’t even in the same stratosphere as, say, Cristiano Ronaldo is for Portugal, but in terms of the U.S. he appears to be equally irreplaceable.
The natural what-if to play here — one every U.S. soccer fan on Twitter apparently did on Monday — was speculate about Landon Donovan. Judging how it all went down, it seems clear he wasn’t in Klinsmann’s plans — although it would have been curious to see what would have happened if Altidore’s injury came against Nigeria in the send-off series compared to the World Cup when you can’t replace players.
Even so, if Klinsmann took Donovan, we’re back to a scenario of Donovan/Dempsey leading the U.S. attack, which rarely worked — the 2013 loss to Costa Rica as the most recent example and would cause a massive lineup reshuffle.
More practically, the question should be why Klinsmann included someone like Green or Brad Davis over either Terrance Boyd or Eddie Johnson, who would both be more practical to play at striker if an injury befell Altidore. Johnson, despite a poor start to 2014 in MLS, was sharp throughout qualifying and did spend the latter part of 2013 playing alongside Dempsey on the Seattle Sounders, too.
Given the way Klinsmann filled out the roster, it seems pretty clear he rated Wondolowski ahead of Johnson and Boyd which makes the decision to use Johannsson vs. Ghana puzzling. Wondolowski does allow the team to keep its “diamond” shape in the midfield without changing all that much and is a contrast to Dempsey.
Klinsmann was bemoaned for his inability to pick consecutive lineups early in his tenure. Lo and behold he picks two straight identical starting XIs and now injuries force him to scramble. The German-born coach has proven to be unpredictable, but Wondolowski appears to be the safest pick.