USA's forward options without Jozy Altidore at Copa America
At least Jurgen Klinsmann and the U.S. men's national team has been here before.
With Jozy Altidore ruled out of Copa America with yet another awfully timed hamstring strain, Klinsmann must look elsewhere in his player pool for a forward to lead the line. It's the same scenario that the U.S. faced last summer at the Gold Cup, about 20 minutes into the 2014 World Cup and in the knockout stage of the 2011 Gold Cup. If there's a silver lining, it's Altidore's injury happened before Copa America started, so Klinsmann does not have to exhaust a roster spot on an unusable forward and then thrust a replacement from his preliminary squad into the mix.
"It’s a huge bummer for all of us, especially for Jozy, because he had so much drive and ambition going towards the Copa America,” Klinsmann told reporters Monday in Miami, where the U.S. is convened for a "transition" camp and a friendly against Puerto Rico. “He was preparing himself for the entire year, starting in January and he hoped to really peak in June for this special tournament. Now, that message, I told him ‘You have to put it behind you and keep going and stay positive. The next tournament is waiting for you.’ Obviously it’s a big blow for us and him personally, but there’s nothing you can do, unfortunately."
The next tournament for Altidore of any consequence figures to be next summer's Gold Cup, while for Klinsmann and the U.S. players, it's deja vu–again.
"It's a blow, of course," Alejandro Bedoya said. "He's one of our key players, one of our best strikers. But like with every team, injuries happen. They're part of the game. We're just going to have to deal with it and move on. It's another opportunity for other players to step in and prove their worth and help us out."
And at least for Klinsmann, he has some intriguing options. Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes, Chris Wondolowski, Ethan Finlay and Christian Pulisic are the other listed forwards on his preliminary roster, and while none of them really mimic Altidore's game or skill set, there are plenty of ways for the U.S. to find goals this summer.
"To substitute a player like Jozy is very difficult," Klinsmann said in a Facebook Q&A on Tuesday. "We're going to find solutions. We're happy to see other strikers right now being in good form."
Here are some of Klinsmann's likeliest combinations up front without Altidore, who is tied for third all time on the U.S. goal-scoring charts with Eric Wynalda (34).
The most prolific American abroad and the most prolific American, period. Should Klinsmann opt for a 4-4-2, he has two capable, complementary scorers at his disposal. They started together in the March World Cup qualifier in Guatemala, but didn't really produce much in the surprise loss. That said, for as much as Altidore was going to be counted on at Copa America, he has had just two assists and no goals in eight games of MLS play with Toronto FC. Wood's 17 goals at Union Berlin and subsequent move to Hamburg have him poised for a breakout summer, while Dempsey, who has a pair of goals in MLS, remains the USA's most reliable option, even at the age of 33.
"Bobby did a huge jump over the last 12-14 months, in the club environment as well as the national team," Klinsmann said Tuesday. Look for his role to expand regardless of how and when he's deployed.
Klinsmann turned to this triad in the bounce-back win over Guatemala, with Dempsey and Wood up top and Zardes cutting in on the wing. While Zardes wound up with two assists, the second was quite accidental. Dempsey scored the crucial early opener with this combination, however, with Zardes showing his target ability by bodying up a defender, winning a long ball and getting it down to Dempsey for the finish. Klinsmann name-checked Zardes during his chat with fans on Tuesday, and he's become a mainstay ever since emerging in the winter of 2015. With two goals and four assists in his last five games, you'd think his place is secure.
This puts an extreme amount of defensive responsibility on two young players, but flanking Pulisic and Morris on either side of a poacher with a goal for nose like Dempsey or Wood gives the U.S. its fastest, most dynamic approach. If Klinsmann opted for a 4-5-1/4-3-3 that he has used in the past, deploying Pulisic and Morris (with Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin overlapping from defense) could unleash hell on opposing fullbacks. Klinsmann could even get all four on the field at the same time should he put Dempsey in the midfield ahead of two holding players like Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones and sacrifice the likes of Bedoya or Darlington Nagbe from the XI. It's the riskiest of all the options, throwing a pair of relatively green players into a cauldron, but Klinsmann is a known proponent of the sink-or-swim approach.
Just kidding. Mostly.
Another two-forward option includes the two Seattle Sounders teammates. Seattle's attack had been finding its groove until this weekend's 2-0 setback against FC Dallas, and Morris and Dempsey are building a club chemistry together. This doesn't give the U.S. a constant presence between the center backs, as Dempsey has a penchant for dropping to find the ball and Morris is less of a target option, but it'd figure to be a reliable combination of players who have an understanding of one another.
Finlay and Wondolowski would seem to be the players on the outside looking in, but should either make Klinsmann's final 23-man squad or be needed in case of another injury, Finlay would slot in as a wide option, while Wondolowski is another veteran poacher with a nose for creating chances from close range.
We won't be able to glean much from Sunday's friendly against Puerto Rico, with Wood the only player on the roster for the match eligible for Copa America. Presuming Wood gets the start, how he is used and in what system could be a clue into what Klinsmann is thinking in how to go about replacing Altidore. Either way, it's business as usual for Klinsmann and his attack in another major competition.