FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — In a game full of missed chances and a lack of scoring opportunities, Jozy Altidore's failure to impact the United States men's national team attack stuck out like a sore thumb.
During his 45-minute shift at the top of the USMNT's 4-3-1-2 formation, Altidore looked far from sharp on the ball and forced manager Jurgen Klinsmann's hand at the start of the second half.
"I felt OK, but my sharpness isn't there yet," Altidore, who is recovering from a hamstring injury, said after the match. "I feel slow. I'm not feeling up to speed with everyone else. I'm just trying my best. That's all I can do."
Within two minutes of coming onto the pitch, Altidore's replacement, Gyasi Zardes, set up Clint Dempsey with a pass from the left side of the box to hand the Yanks a 1-0 lead in front of 46,720 fans at Gillette Stadium.
Zardes, who struggled on the left wing in a 2-1 win over Honduras to open the Gold Cup, instantly showed what he is capable of in his natural forward position. The assist from the blonde-haired youngster also sparked a conversation about who should start at the forward position for the rest of the tournament.
On top of his showing as one of the few bright spots in the USMNT's second consecutive unconvincing win, Zardes also has an advantage over Altidore when it comes to the final group game thanks to the luck the Yanks have had so far in this competition.
The victory over Haiti, partnered with the draw between Honduras and Panama earlier on Friday, allowed the Americans to clinch first place in the group before their third game against Panama at Sporting Park in Kansas City on Monday.
Since he has a game to experiment with his lineup before the knockout round, Klinsmann should sit Altidore and start Zardes to see what the young player can do in one of the two forward positions in whatever formation the USMNT boss uses. Despite changing formations constantly during his reign, Klinsmann has usually preferred to start two forwards.
Based on Friday's match, the second forward next to Zardes should be Aron Johannsson. The AZ Alkmaar player outworked his former teammate Altidore in the first half. And the 24-year-old continued to shine with his runs and feel for the game throughout the second half before he was taken off for Kyle Beckerman in the 83rd minute.
"I think tonight showed a guy like Gyasi can come in and be just as good if not better," Altidore said. "I think that shows the depth we have in the team. Aron was fantastic tonight. We have a lot of depth. There's no reason to be worried about it."
However, the concern about Altidore is still lingering. The Toronto FC player is not at full fitness, and as the competition continues, there is no guarantee the untested young guys will perform against the likes of Mexico and/or Costa Rica.
Ideally, Johannsson would remain as the target forward in the two-man lineup up top with Zardes doing some work on the wings to open up the back four against Panama. Altidore attempted to leak out onto the left wing on a few occasions in the first half, but he was largely unsuccessful on a part of the pitch where no USMNT player was active until Zardes broke loose on the left side of the penalty area to dish the ball to Dempsey in the 47th minute.
"Greg Garza reads the game pretty well. He looked up at me, we made eye contact and I did a head nod. He clipped a perfect ball into space. I just chested it and knew Clint or one of the other forwards was going to be there. What a beautiful finish (by Dempsey)," Zardes said.
While some may argue Zardes should bring his speed to the left side of midfield, it was apparent in the win over Honduras that he doesn't have the defensive tracking ability someone in that role should have. And that is perfectly fine. Zardes is a forward and he should be able to highlight his talents in a role he prefers.
"I love playing up top. To be able to go up top at the end was great for myself. Playing out wide, I love it as well. I just try to be an attacking threat," Zardes said.
With that hungry mentality, Zardes would be best suited to partner with Johannsson and then drift out wide to open up spaces in the Panama defense. If that game plan works for the Yanks, we could see it again in the quarterfinals in Baltimore on July 18 against an unconfirmed third-place team from either Group B or C.
If that doesn't work, Dempsey could shift up to a forward position instead of lingering behind the front pair. Dempsey can work well almost anywhere on the pitch, as we have seen during the first two Group A matches. The Seattle Sounders man is currently tied with Mexico's Oribe Peralta atop the Golden Boot standings with three goals.
The production of the forwards is paramount to the success of the United States. If they struggle to create chances against the top sides in CONCACAF, the Yanks could dig a hole they may not be able to get out of. As we have witnessed against Honduras and Haiti, the back four is vulnerable and there are few options to play both ways on the wing positions of midfield.
If Klinsmann can solve that problem with either a healthy Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi, the Yanks may not have to worry too much. But until then, he has to rely on his in-form strikers to shift momentum.
Until Altidore is 100 percent healthy, the pressure will start to grow on Zardes and Johannsson to produce. And if all goes well for the USMNT, we could see Altidore as an impact sub later in the tournament as he eases back to full fitness.
"If I have to come off the bench, we have guys that can do the same thing if not better than me," Altidore said. "The national team is not about any individual, you just do what you can for the team and be ready when your name is called."
Joe Tansey covers U.S. Soccer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.