First, the critics wondered whether Jozy Altidore was the man to lead the line for the United States at the 2014 World Cup. Now, those same critics are wondering how the U.S. will cope without him.
The Sunderland striker is officially out for the United States' match with Portugal on Sunday, per SportsCenter:
That news didn't come as a surprise. Anybody who saw him crumple to the pitch in a heap could've told you that his injury was serious. At this point, he might be lucky to appear in either of the U.S.' next two group-stage matches.
His absence leaves coach Jurgen Klinsmann with a tactical conundrum. Since he opted to keep Terrence Boyd and Eddie Johnson at home, he's left without the kind of striker who can be a like-for-like replacement for the injured Altidore.
Chris Wondolowski admitted that the 24-year-old is one of the most invaluable players in the squad.
"Jozy is a special player. You can’t [replace him]," Wondolowski said, per Andrew Wiebe of MLSSoccer.com. "You can’t necessarily replace certain aspects of it, but I think that both Aron and I bring different styles, different sets of skills that I think are useful."
Instead, Klinsmann has one of three options. He can play Clint Dempsey as a lone striker, pair Aron Johannsson with Dempsey in a two-striker formation or have Wondolowski up top with Dempsey.
The latter two make the most sense.
Granted it was under Bob Bradley, but almost every time Dempsey was previously by himself in a one-striker formation, the results were negligible. His game simply isn't conducive to playing all alone and leading the line. The Seattle Sounders star is much better exploiting the space created by a more prototypical No. 9.
What would likely happen against Portugal is that Dempsey would get left on an island all by himself. That would allow the Seleccao to go with a higher line and press the United States more often. That, in turn, could lead to more interceptions near midfield and in the American half.
At least in a two-striker formation, Dempsey would have support in the attack and help keep the Portuguese defense honest.
Of course, the problem with Johannsson is that his style is somewhat similar to Dempsey's in that he's creative and utilizes his runs off the ball very well. What he isn't is a striker capable of holding up the ball and involving his teammates in the attack.
Johannsson was only marginal when subbing on for Altidore against Ghana. Some of that was simply getting thrust into a tough situation with little warning, but even as the match went on, the AZ Alkmaar forward didn't improve to a demonstrable degree.
Despite that, Pro Soccer Talk's Kyle Bonn made the case that Johannsson should get the nod:
Dempsey played a versatile striker role next to Jozy, often dropping back deeper behind the big attacker to help in build-up play and also to make trailing runs. Now, Clint would have to pair up with Johannsson more often, removing him from link-up play duties, but adding his goal-hawk prowess to the front.
Another great aspect Johannsson provides is his assist potential. Always willing to dish to opponents, 'Iceman' had six assists to his name in Eredivisie play last season compared to 17 goals.
Chris Wondolowski is a much different player—cut right from the "goal poacher" mold. The San Jose Earthquakes striker works his socks off but doesn't possess tremendous speed or agility. Somehow, though, Wondolowski finds himself in the right place at the right time quite often.
If Klinsmann does want to try and select a striker who can as closely replicate Altidore as anyone else, then Wondolowski is his man. The 31-year-old isn't afraid to do yeoman's work.
Johnson seemed to agree when asked whether he'd select Wondolowski or Johannsson, per ESPN FC's Alex Labidou:
I think the one, that as far playing with the back to goal, [fitting] in that system in the Jozy role, I have to go with Chris Wondolowski. No disrespect to Aron Johannsson, I could him seeing doing really well off the bench as he did last game. But obviously Wondolowski, he's used to playing with his back to goal and he keeps it simple. His movement off the ball is good and he's a hell of a finisher in the box.
That's largely why Wondolowski makes the most sense. He can play a little higher up the pitch, allowing Dempsey to roam a little closer to midfield. In addition, the Earthquakes star is a change of pace in the attack and brings something different to the game.
What makes this so difficult is that there isn't a wrong answer—sans playing Dempsey by himself up top—at least until the match is over and everybody can armchair-quarterback. Compelling arguments could be made for both Wondolowski and Johannsson.
This is why Klinsmann makes the big bucks.
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