The U.S. men's national team looked destined for a two-striker set-up in their crucial World Cup qualifiers starting this week. Bobby Wood has been in great form in the Bundesliga and Jozy Altidore plays better with a partner. But with a surprise injury to Wood, that plan has been blown up.
So now, what should coach Bruce Arena do without Wood for Friday's match vs. Honduras (10:30 p.m. ET. FS1)? Let's explore the options:
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If Arena wants to replace Wood's speed with more speed, then Morris is his man. The Sounders striker is excellent at racing in behind back lines and while he's not as polished as Wood is, his finishing and his hold-up play have improved enough that he is a serious option. He took a knock that he played through on Sunday and hasn't trained all week, though. Now his availability is in question.
What Arena may worry most about, however, is the risk of trying a new pairing up top. Altidore and Morris have never started together and the first time to try it might not be during a virtual must-win World Cup qualifier. If Morris and Altidore can't get on the same page and time their runs right, it could prevent the USMNT from scoring.
If Altidore is best with another striker, Dempsey represents the perfect example of what that second striker should be. Dempsey is at his best is a deeper striker role that allows him to feed the ball to the No. 9 striker and add a little creativity in front of goal. His leadership is second to none on the USMNT roster too, plus there are those 36 World Cup qualifying caps under his belt.
The problem is Dempsey only recently made his return from a months-long layoff as he sorted out a heart condition. He has been playing 90 minutes for the Seattle Sounders through three weeks of MLS, but he has noticeably lost steam as the game goes on. Arena might be hesitant to count on Dempsey who, only a month ago, looked unlikely to even be on this roster.
Apparently Arena thought better of his options and depth at the striker position because Wondolowski was a late addition to the USMNT roster, being added on Monday, and not after a player had to be taken off the roster. Wondo is a proven MLS goal-scorer and a veteran.
But he certainly lacks the pace and dynamism of a Wood-type player. He's 34 years old, and he can still deliver on the MLS level, but can he still do it on the international level? Still, he didn't score in bunches for the U.S. when he was younger. Even Wondolowski hinted he thought he wouldn't see much time with the national team after Copa America, but here he is. It seems like a good bet he's there purely for depth, just in case.
No, Kljestan isn't a striker, but when Wood was injured and removed from the USMNT's roster, Arena's replacement for him was Kljestan. That signals that Arena is considering a tactical shift to a lone striker formation wherein Kljestan, as a No. 10, would tuck in behind Altidore and feed him service. It makes sense: Kljestan was the best playmaker in MLS last season, leading the league's in assists, and the role he would play wouldn't be too different than what Dempsey brings to the withdrawn striker role.
The concern here is that playing with a No. 10 clearly did not seem to be in Arena's initial plans, at least judging by his first roster, and it might be a risky audible. Altidore is best with another striker – another goal-scoring threat that helps pull back lines apart, which Kljestan won't do. Even though Kljestan can offer the same service and creativity of a Dempsey-type striker, he won't give Altidore everything he needs to play his best as a striker.
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Is Pulisic's USMNT future as a central playmaker, even though he's typically been a winger since breaking through to the senior team? Maybe. Arena sounds open to the idea, and it's not far-fetched – Pulisic has played there for Borussia Dortmund before and that was where Pulisic played in the youth UMSNT ranks. That means Pulisic is just as much an option to play beneath a striker as Kljestan is.
Of course, Jurgen Klinsmann tried to put Pulisic in a central role and they were the last USMNT matches he ever coached. Pulisic did alright, given that there seemed to be some genuine confusion about the system Klinsmann asked his players to play, but it seems far more likely Pulisic will continue as a winger for now, especially since that's his consistent spot for BVB, and he'll be groomed for the No. 10 role down the line.
In all likelihood, Nagbe made this USMNT roster as a winger, not as a No. 10. But if Arena is going to change his entire approach based on Wood's injury, then Nagbe offers some depth in the central playmaker spot behind Kljestan or Pulisic – and he may even be an option to start. Nagbe has played in the role for club and country and has done relatively well with it.
Still, Arena seems to see Nagbe as a winger, which is the spot the Portland Timbers have settled on for Nagbe too. In fact, Nagbe looks like the best left wing option on the entire roster, particularly with Fabian Johnson out, so it'd be a waste to ask him to play as a No. 10.
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The choice? Clint Dempsey
In big games like Friday's, it's never a bad idea to lean on experience. Dempsey knows how to win and he's the type of player who can take matters into his own hands when the USMNT is up against it. It's an intangible but real thing: He's a leader. Add to that his comfort and familiarity with Altidore, and it seems like an obvious choice. Dempsey knows how to get the best out of Altidore and Dempsey scores a lot of goals on his own.
It doesn't hurt that if Arena uses Dempsey, he doesn't have to abandon the game plan that it appears he initially had. If Dempsey loses steam, Morris certainly isn't a bad option off the bench. If for some reason Altidore needs to come off, then Morris can come on for him and play with Dempsey, who is his teammate on the Sounders. Dempsey has chemistry with both Altidore and Morris, and he allows them both to play the best way they know how. If Morris isn't fit to play at all, Wondolowski is capable of closing out the match as a replacement for Dempsey if necessary.
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