With the United States men’s national soccer team on an 11-game winning streak, and its roster depth flush on the back of so many excellent performances in the June World Cup qualifiers and the July CONCACAF Gold Cup, expectations in the Jurgen Klinsmann era have never been higher.
The current prevailing wisdom, in Klinsmann’s recently preferred 4-2-3-1, is that Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore should be starting together through the middle, flanked by Landon Donovan, and either Fabian Johnson or Graham Zusi on the wings.
But, are there any scenarios in which the U.S. would be better off with both Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson in the starting lineup at the same time?
Dual No. 9’s
With Klinsmann likely to continue using the 4-2-3-1 once the “A” squad is reassembled, a reversion to a dual No. 9 system is an unlikely scenario. However, Klinsmann did use a 4-1-3-2 in several games of the Gold Cup (whether Landon Donovan truly played as a forward is up for debate) and several games of World Cup qualifying in the semifinal round last fall.
The advantage of the 4-1-3-2, as the U.S. used against Guatemala and Jamaica late last year, is that it gives more freedom to one center midfielder to get forward. Michael Bradley has demonstrated several times over the past year, that when he has been paired with a partner who prefers to hold (Danny Williams last fall and Geoff Cameron against Panama), he can add a lot to the U.S. attack.
The other advantage of the 4-1-3-2 is that, in some ways, it may actually help protect the U.S.’ inexperienced center-backs more than a 4-2-3-1. While counterintuitive, assigning one midfielder to hold eliminates potential communication problems between the center mids. This allows the U.S. to relieve some pressure on the backline through a more proactive attack with more possession of the ball, avoiding the potential problem of the U.S. isolating a lone striker on an island with little help surrounding him.
However, when the U.S. has deployed this system, it has often functioned as more of a 4-1-3-1-1, with one forward (either Clint Dempsey or Landon Donovan) dropping “into the hole” to win the ball and start the attack.
If the U.S. were to go back to this system with the “A” team, Donovan or Dempsey would likely be the default choice to partner Altidore, not Eddie Johnson.
The U.S. could also use dual No. 9’s if it went back to the old Bob Bradley 4-2-2-2, but considering the U.S.’ recent success, that seems unlikely. Additionally, in that old system, both forwards tended to find themselves isolated with little center midfielder support. Reverting to that system would seem to be a step back for the USMNT.
Eddie Johnson as a Wide Midfielder in a 4-2-3-1
The more likely scenario with both Johnson and Altidore in the starting lineup, would be with Johnson deployed as a wide midfielder and Altidore keeping his spot up top.
Certainly, there is plenty of competition for the wide midfielder spots with Fabian Johnson, Landon Donovan, Graham Zusi, Joe Corona and potentially Alejandro Bedoya in the mix, but the possibility of Eddie Johnson winning a starting role as a wide midfielder is not implausible.
Despite his excellent performances this summer, there is still some doubt about how DaMarcus Beasley will play at left-back against top competition. That may force Klinsmann’s hand and push Fabian Johnson back into the defense.
If that were to happen, Eddie Johnson would likely be in a straight competition for a starting spot with Zusi. Zusi is certainly the better of the two serving the ball in, and in that regard, Zusi helped get Altidore back on track in June.
Zusi’s defensive effort in the March qualifier against Mexico was also excellent, although widely unnoticed. As such, he maintains an advantage over Johnson as well.
However, Johnson has several advantages over his competitors. If the U.S. is forced to bunker and counter, as they surely will have to when they face the seeded team in group play of the World Cup, Johnson’s speed is better than Zusi, Corona, Bedoya, Fabian Johnson and even Donovan. Eddie Johnson is also the best of that group in the air, as he has proved repeatedly.
First, there was his double against Antigua and Barbuda last fall (both headers) to rescue the U.S. when its World Cup qualifying campaign was on life support.
Then, there was his goal on a U.S. corner kick against El Salvador in the Gold Cup quarterfinals this summer, which happened only 14 seconds after he had entered the match.
Then, in the same match against El Salvador, Johnson provided the assist to Donovan, flicking a Nick Rimando kick to Donovan for the breakaway.
To top it off, Johnson provided the “hockey assist” on the game-winning goal against Honduras in the Gold Cup semifinals, when he once again flicked a Rimando kick in behind the defense to start the U.S. attack.
Against a top team in the world, the U.S. will need to maximize its opportunities on set pieces and counters, and Eddie Johnson has the ability to make that happen.
While Zusi does maintain an advantage in serving the ball on dead balls, and from the wing in the run of play, the inclusion of Landon Donovan in the starting XI provides skilled dead ball service, thus eliminating the “need” for Zusi to start. In addition, Johnson has proved in the past he can provide service from the flank in the run of play when he needs to.
Last October, playing as a wide midfielder against Guatemala, Eddie Johnson provided the service on the game-winning goal that sealed U.S.' advancement to the hexagonal.
On the play, not only did Johnson put in a nice ball, but he also displayed the speed that gives him an advantage over the U.S.’ other options on the wing. Johnson did the same thing in the U.S.’ World Cup win over Panama in June, when he used his speed on the wing to get on the end of an excellent pass by Geoff Cameron to score an insurance goal.
Finally, Johnson has an excellent partnership with both Dempsey and Donovan, his likely partners in the three-man line behind Altidore. Johnson has a close friendship with Dempsey and will now be playing with him week in, week out, after Dempsey’s move to the Seattle Sounders, where Johnson plays his club ball.
Johnson also has an excellent partnership with Donovan, as displayed repeatedly in the Gold Cup, the byproduct of so many years in the U.S. national team system together.
Whether it is up top with Altidore (or replacing him as the U.S.’ No. 9 should Altidore pick up a knock) or on the wing, Johnson has done enough over the past year to be in the conversation for a starting spot with the USMNT as the team enters these last 10 months leading into the World Cup.
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