What will Klinsi do?
The manager of the US National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann, has already been thrust into a difficult lineup decision, entering just the second game of the World Cup campaign, having to find a way to replace a player who is basically irreplaceable. There will be no Jozy Altidore for the US on Sunday against Portugal, and perhaps not again this tournament following what appeared to be a serious hamstring injury early in the 2-1 victory over Ghana. And there are no more Altidores on this roster or in our country. There is no one else as big and strong and fast; as able to retreat deep into the midfield and help win balls and hold the ball up and protect possession and defend with such physicality from the striker position.
To lose a player with that unique skill set will cause a rethink. The question is -- how drastic a change will it be.
With that in mind I asked two former US top strikers what they would do -- Eddie Johnson (who had some big moments in World Cup qualifying and whose days in the red, white and blue shouldn't be over at age 30) and Clint Mathis (a star from the 2002 team that nearly reached the semifinals) -- both of whom are accustomed to having to play without great service and who had to make do at times as a lone forward. They know of what they speak, they have lived this sort of scenario to one degree or another, and their answers were quite different.
Mathis believes the best strategy for the US against a wounded but talented Portugal squad is to maintain a two-striker presence up top, with Clint Dempsey staying in his slightly withdrawn role and San Jose goal-poacher Chris Wondolowski replacing Altidore. Johnson, whose exclusion from this final World Cup roster, to me, could prove much more troubling than Landon Donovan's -- as Johnson is the closest thing to a Altidore doppelganger in terms of his combination of size and pace if nothing else -- champions the idea of Dempsey up top as more-or-less a lone striker, with the USA instead dedicating numbers to winning the midfield battle and trying to eliminate time and space from the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo. I'd love to see Klinsmann follow the idea posited by Johnson, but both men speak from experience and make valid points.
Mathis, an assistant coach with the Chicago Fire who scored one of the more memorable and important goals in American history against South Korea in 2002 (if you aren't familiar, You Tube it, the touch is sublime, as is the service from John O'Brien), believes Klinsmann should find the next closest thing he has to an Altidore available to him and try to mimic the type of football he was looking for from his team entering the tournament before injuries started to mount. And, having seen much more of Wondolowski in MLS than of striker Aron Johannsson, who plays in Holland, Mathis believes Wondo has the requisite strength and work rate and to be worthy of the start against a world power like the Portuguese.
“I wouldn't put Clint Dempsey in a different role,” said Mathis, who parlayed his World Cup success into a stint with German giants Bayern Munich. “I'd let him continue to do what he does, and what he did right off the bat against Ghana. You can bring in a guy like Wondolowski up front with him, who has proved it in our league and has definitely played more national team games and scored more goals for the national team than Johannsson. He is used to playing tight, with his back to the goal, against defenders that are physical. You know what you are going to get out of Wondo. He makes phenomenal runs in the box and he is always opportunistic with rebounds and any trash in the box, and we need that, especially in a game like this.”
Indeed, being clinical and opportunistic will likely dictate this game Sunday, as it did Monday's contest against Ghana. The US did not have the better of the run of play, but a moment of brilliance from Dempsey literally off the opening kickoff, and a late moment of precision from John Brooks in the dying moments were the difference. The US didn't create many chances, but it made the most of them. With Portugal desperate for a win after looking disinterested and slack-jawed for much of a brutal, 4-0 loss to Germany in its opener, it could be another case where the opposition has the better of possession and generates more good looks at goal.
With that in mind, I prefer the US continue to deploy five in the midfield, more or less, and try to frustrate Ronaldo early, have the bodies available to challenge him physically (he is clearly not at 100 percent though 70 percent of Ronaldo is better than almost anyone else in the world), and I want to see the dual-defensive destroyer tandem of Jermaine Jones (my man of the match from Monday) and Kyle Beckerman, maintained. Either can float to a wing if need be and provide more cover against Ronaldo as he drifts out wide, and without Altidore, I'd just as soon alter the tactics somewhat and put in a true winger and gifted crosser of the ball, like Graham Zusi (whose corner setup the game winner last week) in for Altidore, and leave Dempsey up top.
I'd allow for Michael Bradley, coming off a rough display Monday, to continue to push up in the attack, with Jones and Beckerman behind him (Bradley often still backtracked deeper than either at times Monday) and sacrifice the second striker for additional midfield reinforcements. Don't get me wrong -- I am not in any way espousing a defensive or negative approach. Rather, I want to ensure I have ample bodies deployed in the midfield to actually maintain more of the possession so badly missing against Ghana, try to keep a tight shape, and still be positioned to pounce on the counter but still have sufficient cover defensively.
“You have to respect Portugal -- they have the best player on the planet right now,” said Johnson, the DC United striker who knows this US team inside out and I dare say is on this roster if not for a horrible officiating decision that negated a clear goal for offsides in a recent friendly against Mexico. “You want to be as defensively sound and hard to break down as can be, but at the same time you don't change your identity because of one player and I think that is what the approach will be.
“I think we will try to flood the midfield, as you said, and not let Ronaldo get in those seams and be able to run at our back four. And I think the team is ready for it. I'd play Clint as a lone striker -- he is used to it and had success with it and he'd done it and scored goals in the biggest league in the world (with Fulham in the English Premier League, where Johnson also spent time). I'd want to keep the other guys fresh, and have Wondo and Aron available either to help protect the lead with fresh legs to go for a goal coming off the bench.”
I wouldn't be shocked if Klinsmann made a move, either before the match, or during it, involving left back DaMarcus Beasley. He was vulnerable and shaky and targeted by Ghana throughout the match, and the US cannot afford another 90 minutes where it becomes essentially trapped on the left side of the pitch. Timmy Chandler was too out-of-his element on the left side in the pre-Cup friendlies for me to put him back there, though perhaps Klinsmann moves Fabian Johnson to the left side and puts Chandler, accustomed to running with and colliding with big bodies in the Bundesliga every week, out on the right.
I was pretty hard on Bradley's outing Monday, and his touch, service and positioning were below expectations for the best and most important player on this team, but Johnson attributed much of his more-defensive posture against Ghana to the fact that Dempsey provided such a surprisingly quick lead.
“I know Michael Bradley and I know what a great player he is and what a leader he is,” Johnson said, “and one of the things that was different for this game is we had the lead so soon and I know he wanted to make sure we didn't give that up and he was trying to cover as much ground as he could and make it hard for their forwards to get into a rhythm.”
I had a vibe about this team, similar to the 2002 upstarts, before the tournament began (I've been rocking the '02 home jersey through the tournament with that in mind), and I continue to believe this team will have similar fortunes. Very few gave that team a chance of emerging from a group with Portugal and Poland and host country South Korea, and similarly only the true-believers predicted the US to emerge from this group of death. That group shocked Portugal in the opener, starting very fast and holding on for a 3-2 win, and managed a draw with Korea that saw them though.
There is a perseverance and an intent of purpose long ago missing, and a sense that, unlike in the past, the goals will come. Defending of course could still be a different matter altogether, but I like the way this unit matches up against Portugal more than I did against Ghana, and with the climate and heat likely to be a factor on Sunday, I'd suspect the US is superior in that regard as well.
I like their chances to make a run with visions of 2002. And I am not alone.
“For sure, obviously, I see some similarities,” Mathis said. “Both teams started out fast and people didn't give them much of a chance. Some might have thought in ‘02 against Portugal our first game was harder than this team playing against Ghana, but I'd go back to the previous two World Cups and Ghana is the team that knocked us out the last two times. That is a very good side. There are definitely some similarities with us being counted out and people not thinking we were going to make it out. The similarities are there but we were able to fight and scrape and so what we needed in the first game, just like these guys did, and now they have another tough match, too. The difference is, in 2002 Portugal maybe took us lightly, and this time I don't think Portugal is going to.”
No, they won't. But if the US can withstand -- and sustain -- the first 15 minutes, I really like their chances. The result might just be the same as it was 12 years ago.
Notes: Central back Geoff Cameron is another vital player for this match. I expect him to be up to the challenge, though I am a little troubled as to how fellow central defender Matt Besler, and his hamstring, will hold up. ... I am very interested to see which tactical subs Klinsmann makes in this match, as, you will recall, injuries dictated his machinations on Monday for the most part and he was already shorthanded with subs by the 70th minute, when he has worked plenty of magic in the past. ... Johnson, rather than gripe about his snub from this team, has been serving as a cheerleader here domestically. He's overcome hardship to reinvent himself and salvage his career in the past -- and overcome greater odds already -- and I wouldn't write him off just yet in the future either even despite needing some time to get settled with his new club in DC. “At the end of the day I have accepted it, it is what it is and I've really tried to see the good in every situation,” Johnson said. “Someone sent me that quote and I am really trying to stay with that and you can take the positive out of it. I can feel sorry for myself and bad for myself and let it affect everything I worked so hard for, or I can use it as motivation, I can prove the coach wrong, and that's what I've kind of been doing. I want to show the coach I think the decision is wrong, and I don't agree with it, but I'm not letting if affect me and what I've worked so hard for. That's been my whole approach.”