World Cup 2014: Looking at the Future of U.S. Soccer, Part III—Forwards

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World Cup 2014: Looking at the Future of U.S. Soccer, Part III—Forwards
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This is the third in a four-part series looking at the future of the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team. Read Part I—Defense here, Part II—Midfield here, Part IV—The Big Picture here, or visit World Football Daily, Man Cave Sports, or Hammy End for more of the author's work. 


Let’s look at the numbers, shall we?

Four games over 15 days, 390 minutes (plus stoppage time) on the pitch, 23,400 seconds (+ s.t.), four strikers with 50 caps and 13 international goals between them—none of which were scored at the World Cup.

Of the players who made the trip to South Africa, the most disappointing group for the USMNT, collectively, were the strikers. Sure, there were positive moments from Jozy Altidore, Robbie Findley, Herculez Gomez, and Edson Buddle, but teams who can’t get goals from their strikers can’t win.

No, this wasn’t the most talented group of forwards in South Africa, and no, expectations were not high for them. But when called upon to do their jobs, with chances at World Cup glory sitting in front of them waiting to be pounced upon, the four forwards selected by Bob Bradley to complete the 23-man roster failed to answer.

Looking to the future, the U.S. striker pool appears to have some bright spots, but there is much to build on after a goalless 2010 World Cup. As some return to health and others mature and develop, talent will undoubtedly emerge.

But talent isn’t enough. There is a hunger and poise required of all great strikers, and someone will have to develop that in the next four years. Otherwise, it’s same story, different chapter come Brazil 2014.

Let’s take a look at the players available, broken down role by role—combo forwards, target forwards, and strikers/second strikers.

We’ll start with the familiar names and work our way to the newer, fresher prospects to find out who can be expected to fill the need for goals.

 

Combo Forwards

Clint Dempsey

In my last piece, I talked a lot about Clint Dempsey’s future in the USMNT.

In 2014, Dempsey will be 31 years old. That’s fairly old for an international footballer and probably just past his prime, but I see Dempsey making the move up top by 2014 as a forward or outright winger.

This move works for Dempsey for a couple of reasons. First, his game is built around creativity, not speed. Rarely does he blow by people even now. His creativity should go nowhere, though, even if he loses a step or two. Second, I expect the U.S. to move to a 4-2-3-1, which would allow Dempsey to move to a wide winger position in the mold of Dirk Kuyt.

Dempsey will probably be our best option out left if we go to the 4-2-3-1. He cuts in beautifully, and this is his natural spot for Fulham—opposite a similar player in Damien Duff, also 31 years old and still playing at a high level. He can also interchange with Jozy at the top of the formation, as the 4-2-3-1 can shift and look like a 4-3-3 or 4-2-1-3.

The versatility that Clint provides as an attacker cannot be overlooked. With a great deal of depth emerging in the midfield and a lot of question marks up top, expect Dempsey to begin seeing more and more time at striker in the coming years. He may have to stay in the midfield while the rest of the U.S. midfielders develop, but once they arrive, look for Clint to slide into a forward position permanently.

 

Herculez Gomez

If this article were written a year ago and was instead a preview of who might make it to the World Cup, Herculez Gomez’s name would certainly not have appeared.

Like time, money, and love, however, football can be a fickle thing.

Gomez rose from the pits of the MLS outcast pool to become the leading scorer in the Mexican Clausura for Puebla. His achievement put him right in the middle of the World Cup discussion, and a good pre-Cup training camp put him in the final roster ahead of surefire veterans Brian Ching, Connor Casey, and Eddie Johnson.

His time in South Africa was too brief, however. In the time that he did play, he played well. With Robbie Findley suspended against Algeria, Gomez started and had a good 45 minutes, putting a few shots in and assisting on an unfairly overturned Dempsey goal.

But for some reason or another, Gomez was not given much more time to shine. Known for his ability to score in a substitute’s role, Gomez was only called on once more, in extra time against Ghana, and he failed to deliver there.

It was probably his last chance. Gomez is 28 years old, and while his rise from Kansas City Wizards reject to World Cup starter has been nothing short of incredible, there are younger—and better—alternatives.

He should feature in some qualifiers and friendlies for the next couple of years, but once he hits 30 years old, I imagine Herculez will have capped for the final time.

 

Danny Mwanga

The question with Mwanga is not if he’s going to be good enough to play for the USMNT—he already is.

The question will be whether or not he chooses his country of birth (D.R. Congo) or the country that housed him from civil war (United States).

Mwanga has taken the MLS by storm this season, emerging as a favorite for Rookie of the Year honors. The 19 year old has scored big goal after big goal for the expansion Philadelphia Union in their initial MLS campaign, and many are calling for Bob Bradley to cap him as quickly as possible.

Though he is not yet a citizen, he has a U.S. green card and a refugee travel document, both of which make it easier for him to get capped as a U.S. international.

He’s also spoken highly of potentially playing for the Americans.

Mwanga offers a rare combination of size, speed, and skill, much like Altidore, and he seems to possess great intelligence. He perhaps bests Jozy in terms of his killer instinct, as seen in his ability to score clutch goals for Philly.

Let’s hope Mwanga goes the U.S. route. He can develop into a target or a slashing forward, and he could even push Altidore as the top forward in the country if given a chance.

 

Marcus Tracy

Tracy is one of those guys who gets a lot of hype on the Internet but hasn’t seen the field for the U.S. That could change this year. With Charlie Davies’ health still a concern and a lack of obvious depth in the pool, the former Wake Forest and current Aalborg striker may get a look soon. While he’s not huge, at 6’1” he has enough height, and his leaping ability is unparalleled among his countrymen. Who else in the pool could do this ?

Honorable mentions : Macoumba Kandji, Justin Braun, Juan Agudelo, Stefan Jerome

 

Target Forwards

Jozy Altidore

The future of the United States front line begins and ends with Altidore. There are others who will play important roles, but the broad shoulders of young Jozy must bear the burden of goal scoring going forward.

Don’t get me wrong, Altidore wasn’t bad by any means in South Africa. He gave defenses fits for most of his 360 minutes with an improved work rate and his creativity on the ball. His knock-down header to Michael Bradley for the equalizer against Slovenia was one of the biggest plays of his career.

But his scoring record speaks for itself. Jozy failed to put the ball in the back of the net despite several clear chances that he should have finished. It’s the same problem he suffered from with Hull this year: Solid play but no production.

The good news is that Jozy has shown the ability over the last few years to improve his glaring weaknesses. The knock on him two years ago was his laziness and his inability to hold the ball up. He showed an incredible work rate at the Cup (he covered more ground per game than David Villa, among others), and he held the ball up with great affect, drawing more fouls than any other U.S. player and constantly hassling defenders with his strength.

The beauty of Jozy as a target is his versatility. He’s clever on the ball and cuts inside effectively. He can make diagonal runs as well as anyone, and his best games for Hull were when he played beside Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, a big target-man himself. In this way, he acts as almost a slashing center forward, versatile and capable of playing beside any other striker in the country.

If Jozy can find a place in Europe—perhaps Besiktas or Fulham—to get consistent minutes and work on his finishing, he can fulfill the vast potential he’s sitting on. Villareal may not give him the time he needs, but a loan-to-buy suitor like Fulham, Besiktas, or Napoli would give him the chance to develop as he needs to. He could realistically become the best forward the country has ever seen, but he’ll need time to find a killer instinct in front of net.

The sitters he missed in South Africa are going to have to be put away. Hopefully, they’ll find the net in Brazil.

 

Edson Buddle

Buddle’s story is a lot like Gomez’s. Few, if any, expected him to make the World Cup roster until his 2010 scoring explosion in MLS. Sadly, he saw very little of the field in South Africa, despite a pre-Cup brace against Australia and a top run of form throughout the year.

At 29 years old, Buddle’s window is shrinking. He may get some time in the next year, but he faces the same aging problem as Gomez.

Of all the forwards available, Buddle plays the best with his back to the goal, and he is the strongest in the air. His connection with Landon Donovan is remarkable, so bringing him to camp and possibly to the Gold Cup might not be a bad idea

 

Kenny Cooper

Cooper is as talented a target forward as we’ve got. The problem is, he doesn’t know it.

Not that he’s not talented—his ego has gotten him into trouble enough, certainly this year with Plymouth Argyle.

No, Cooper has yet to realize that he is a target forward. He fancies himself a combo forward, but he lacks the speed and shiftiness required to get around top-level defenders.

At 6’4” and 210 pounds, Cooper has all the size required of a solid target. He’s clever on the ball, has good passing range, and he scores goals in bunches.

But he’s still poor with his back to the goal. If Cooper can find minutes for 1860 Munich or another side on loan, maybe he can learn what he needs to as center forward. First, however, he’ll have to wake up and smell the potential he’s oozing with, all while brushing off an oversized ego.

 

Omar Salgado

The former Chivas Guadalajara man was forced out after declaring his intentions to play for the U.S. Just 16-years-old, he will enter the MLS draft next year after signing on with Generation Adidas. Don’t be shocked if the Whitecaps take the 6’4” speedster first overall after a solid run in leading the U-20 U.S. side to the Milk Cup championship. Could he be the next Altidore?

Honorable mentions : Yura Movsisyan, Brek Shea, Adrian Ruelas

 

Strikers

Landon Donovan

Like Dempsey, Donovan may benefit from a move to a forward position.

In South Africa, Donovan was the finally the superstar we’ve long expected him to be, scoring three goals and playing true top-level football. The Algeria goal will go down in history as one of the biggest in U.S. Soccer history.

The only question now is where Landon will spend the next four years. European suitors are calling, but the MLS wants to hold on to him. Either way, I don’t see Landon moving out of the national team in the next four years. He’s just too valuable and will still be one of our best players in four years’ time.

However, he will be 32 years old by the time Brazil 2014 rolls around. That’s old enough to say he’ll be past his prime and probably a step or two off his top pace. Perhaps playing up top would be best for his aging legs, and like Dempsey, the depth in the midfield could see a U.S. tactical change moving Donovan to a striker or trequartista role.

It’s something to think about, but whether Donovan is flanked wide or in support up top, don’t expect Landycakes to depart from the USMNT anytime soon.

 

Charlie Davies

It was sad to see Davies not called into the pre-Cup camp in May, and his club deserve much of the blame for that.

However, even though Davies felt he was fit, he is an asset of the club, and they were protecting what is rightfully theirs. Current reports would seem to support that decision, as nearly three months later, Davies is still struggling to get to full fitness.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a fully fit Davies would have had a great World Cup. His form in the Confederations Cup a year ago was superb, and it didn’t drop off at any point prior to his injury.

But can Davies get back to that point? I’m not sure. Mentally, he’s got it together, it would seem, and he’s been working his tail off to get back the pace and stamina that made him invaluable beside Jozy. Physically, however, he still has an uphill battle to fight.

The best-case scenario for the U.S. would be Davies battling Altidore for first-team duty, with the loser being a super sub in a 4-3-3 or close variation. The worst-case scenario—well, let’s deal with that if it ever rears its head.

It’ll be important for Bob Bradley to monitor Davies’ progression in the coming months. Minutes at Sochaux are up for grabs, so the opportunity will be there.

Hopefully for Charlie, he’ll grab his second chance and never let go.

 

Freddy Adu

The Freddy Adu saga has been beat to death. I won’t add on to the train of Adu-based debates that can be found on forums all over the Internet.

Instead, I’ll say this. Freddy is only 20 years old, and he’s still as talented as any other American in the sport. No one can quite peg his problem, whether it’s mental, physical, psychological, or some combination, but if it ever clicks for Freddy, watch out.

The wing is his natural place, so a 4-3-3 would fit nicely. Don’t get your hopes up, but certainly don’t take your eye off of Adu, wherever he ends up this season.

 

Andy Najar

As is the case with Mwanga, Najar is having an explosive season in the MLS, lighting up the radars of scouts all over the world, including Arsenal.

Also like Mwanga, however, Najar is not a U.S. citizen, and while he has expressed interest in playing for the U.S., his native Honduras are favorites to land the services of the D.C. United phenom.

Never say never, however. Najar could go the route of Adu and Benny Feilhaber and join the ranks of foreign-born players who have suited up for the U.S.

Honorable Mentions : Eddie Johnson, Jack McInerney, Chris Pontius, Robbie Findley, Joseph Gyau

 

Starters

2011 Gold Cup starters: Altidore, Davies, Dempsey (winger/wide forward hybrid)

2013 Confederations Cup starters: Altidore, Davies, Dempsey, Donovan

2014 World Cup starters: Altidore, Dempsey, Donovan, Mwanga

 

***Note: For all articles, starters have been chosen based on who will get starts, not who will be in the set starting XI. Football has too many injuries and tactical adjustments to pick just eleven starters for a four-year period. Thus, the three starting forwards I have selected in this piece are those who I expect to start at least one game in the tournament they are fielded in.

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