USMNT: Can Chris Wondolowski Displace Jozy Altidore as Starting Striker?

Charlie MelmanCorrespondent IIJuly 10, 2013

PORTLAND, OR - JULY 09:  Chris Wondolowski #19 of the United States celebrates scoring his second goal in the first half against Belize during the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 9, 2013 at Jeld-Wen Field in Portland, Oregon.  (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

OK, it was against Belize.

Belize, whose current FIFA rank of 130 is only two places below its all-time high of 128, achieved earlier this year. Its most capped player of all time, Elroy Smith, currently plays in the Honduran league. Its top-scorer, Deon McCaulay, plays in the Belizean league. The national team only played its first match in 1995.

The United States, in all its wealth and splendor, was hosting little Belize. So what? A hat-trick in 45 minutes is a breathtaking achievement regardless of one's opponent.

Chris Wondolowski, who achieved this feat, is no Radamel Falcao. This is not a player who has had a long, prolific run with his national team, reliably scoring goals in all competitions and with different managers.

"Wondo" is the exact opposite. Despite a fruitful stint with the San Jose Earthquakes during the last couple seasons, he has only accrued 11 caps with the U.S. Men's National Team, beginning at the wizened age of 28.

American footballers are sometimes stunted in their growth due to the unfortunate nature of the high school and college football system, which robs young players of elite competition during their most formative years. But even by the standard of his country, Wondolowski is an extremely late bloomer.

After his first nine caps, he looked to be a gamble that was not going to produce any sort of return.

Zero goals and little impact off the ball suggested that Wondolowski was a thoroughly average footballer whose limited talents were magnified by the mediocrity of his own league.

Recent evidence suggests a turnaround.

After finally scoring his first international goal on July 5 against Guatemala, Wondolowski repaid Jurgen Klinsmann's trust by delivering three goals during the first 45 minutes of play against Belize.

His prolific spurt seemed to emerge from nothing. One must ask, then: What can the U.S. do in the future to capitalize on Wondolowski's sudden discovery of form?

Before becoming too titillated, however, it is wise to remember that this is a 30-year-old player, and his effectiveness beyond next year's World Cup will be limited. Plus, at his age, he is very unlikely to develop into a much more capable footballer than he already is.

Still, striker has been a perilously unstable position for the Yanks in recent years, which has severely retarded the team's attacking development under Jurgen Klinsmann.

The German can profess all the technical philosophy that he pleases and boast creators such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but the squad suffers greatly when there is no focal point up front.

Klinsmann has tried numerous options at striker, and none has been particularly effective.

Herculez Gomez is one of the most thoroughly unremarkable strikers one will ever see, lacking either the stature or the technical flair to lead the line for the U.S.

Jozy Altidore is therefore the usual choice, but, until very recently, the new Sunderland man had not been able to translate his scintillating form for AZ Alkmaar into conversions for his country.

There is certainly precedent for late bloomers etching a name for themselves on the international stage, though such surprise entries are rare.

Spain's Marcos Senna, for example, earned his first cap at the age of 30 and was 32 when he became one of La Roja's most important players at Euro 2008. His time in the global spotlight was limited, but he definitely made the most of every single photon while they were available.

Unfortunately for Wondolowski, his purple patch might be arriving at an unfortunate time. If Altidore excels in the Premier League with Sunderland, it will be nearly impossible to leave him out of the national squad. His four-goal month of June has already made it very difficult.

But if Wondolowski can prove that he is peaking at the right time, he, like Senna before, can be an extremely valuable player during one major tournament. The World Cup is only a year away, so now is the time for him to put in those extra hours in training.

Sure, it was just Belize. But, depending on how he plays in his next couple caps, Wondolowski's remarkable first-half hat-trick could be the beginning of a magical little run.

Perhaps the starting spot is not quite so far out of his grasp as one might have thought just a few days ago.