The United States men's national team suffered a blow over the weekend, with Jozy Altidore coming up injured during the Toronto FC match against Vancouver. It's the latest in a long line of hamstring injuries for Altidore, and it leaves the USMNT without their top striker heading into the Copa América this summer.
Altidore is a divisive figure among U.S. fans, but love him or hate him he's still the top center forward for the national team by a long ways. They don't have anyone else who has his combination of strength and skill up front, and even though he's gone through some pretty long droughts of form over the last few years, his ability to contribute up front will be deeply missed by the USMNT in the coming tournament.
So with him out, what does the USMNT do to replace him? They have a few options at hand, but making everything work might be a little bit tricky.
The one-forward approach
Some of the USMNT's best play over the last few years has come in variations of the 4-3-3, with one central forward up top flanked by two wingers. Jozy was the natural fit to play up top there, as his size and work on the ball allowed him to hold up play well and link in his fellow attackers. They can make the formation work without him, but it won't be easy. With that in mind, let's rank the options that Jurgen Klinsmann has at his disposal.
Dempsey works best paired with another forward who can clear space for him, but he's shown an adept touch at times playing on his own up top. He doesn't quite play as a false nine, being somewhat more aggressive and goal-minded than how that role usually plays, but his creative skills lend themselves to playing there in the right setup. The side would have to be tailored to Dempsey playing up top on his own, though -- and that's not a kind of adaptability that Klinsmann has always displayed while managing the USMNT.
This might be surprising to some to see Wood this high up such a list, but he's earned his accolades with his performances on the pitch. Especially in a tournament in which the USMNT will see some tough, talented defenses, Wood's work rate and willingness to fight to find room will be a valuable asset. He's also not at all a bad poacher in front of goal, something that will be very, very useful in a tournament like the Copa América.
Many would expect to see America's shining young talent in attack higher up this list, but with most of his experience in the national team and in the professional game coming out wide, and some of his better work at the collegiate level coming while working with a strike partner, asking Morris to play on his own in a tournament setting might be a bit much right now. He's got the instincts to make it work, but the experience and consistency just aren't there yet.
Like Morris, Zardes is better out wide in this environment than he is up top. Unlike Morris, Zardes seems to, at times, struggle with his instincts and especially with his touch on the ball. Zardes has the skill and the heart and the work rate to be an excellent option, but he needs to put things together consistently before seeing him called on in such a role will realistically happen.
The two-forward approach
Klinsmann frequently employs variations of the 4-4-2 as well, putting two strikers up top to work with two wide players and two central midfielders behind them. While that gives the USMNT some defensive woes through midfield, it does play well with the counter-attacking style they've had a lot of success with through the years. Without a clear center forward to replace Altidore in a 4-3-3, Klinsmann might elect to take the styles of two of his forwards and pair them in a two-striker system to make things work better. Again, let's rank the various combinations that the USMNT has at their disposal.
Morris & Dempsey
Dempsey's playmaking paired with Morris' instinctive play is a natural fit to work together up top for the USMNT this summer. The fact that they play together with the Seattle Sounders only helps, greatly increasing the understanding they have of what the other player will do in a given situation. Developing that kind of understanding between strike partners is often a major goal of pre-tournament training camps, so Dempsey and Morris already having that coming in will give them a huge leg up.
Wood & Dempsey
Take one part veteran playmaking know-how, add one part endless hustle, and you've got the Dempsey-Wood partnership in a nutshell. It may not be as slick and smooth a pairing as Dempsey-Morris could be, but in terms of skill sets matching up in a counter-attacking system, it makes a lot of sense. Wood's hard-nosed style works well for playing on the counter, finding space and exploding into it when the opportunity arises, while Dempsey's skill on the ball and ability to create chances for himself and others at range should give Wood plenty of chances to wreak havoc.
Morris & Wood
This pairing likely wouldn't work as well as either player with Dempsey, but it does have a fair amount of promise. With Wood there to clear the way, Morris could find himself with a lot of room to work with, and we've all seen what Morris can do with a little bit of room. And once the other team starts paying more attention to Morris' disruptive play, then it's time for Wood to pop up at the far post to clean up the play. Not half bad.
Any pairing involving Zardes
While Zardes can play up top in such a system, and in fact would be better at it than playing solo up top, the other three potential pairings are just better than Zardes with any of the other three players would be. His inconsistency and poor touch leaves him limited in how he can contribute and interchange with them, and even regardless of that he'd be more useful out wide, where his pace and work rate can help out more streaking forward on the counter.
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Fortunately for Klinsmann and the USMNT, there's plenty of options at hand to work with. With all of them laid out, who do you think will start up top for the national team once the Copa América kicks off?