Dempsey, Altidore finding form in their strike partnership
JUN 01, 2014 10:06p ET
HARRISON, NJ - They are, in a lot of ways, an odd couple. Jozy Altidore, the proud Haitian-American; Clint Dempsey the unapologetic Texan. The former a classic target man; the latter an unconventional forward who eschews formulas for instinct. But they are, for all their differences, the United States men's national team's striker pairing.
Whichever way head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has tilted or twisted his formation, it's always been Altidore and Dempsey up front. The 24-year-old Sunderland man, who came off a rough first year in his second stint in the English Premier League. And the 31-year-old Seattle Sounders player, who left Tottenham Hotspur last summer for a huge bag of cash with 57 EPL goals under his belt - a record for an American - and went on a scoring rampage this Spring.
Now that Klinsmann has shifted from a 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-4-2, we can expect to see them playing side-by-side, rather than Dempsey setting up behind Altidore. This changes the parameters of their partnership, benefiting both. Altidore no longer has to fight the opposing defense off by himself. Dempsey is relieved of most playmaking duties and can focus on scoring.
However, Sunday afternoon's slightly fortuitous 2-1 win over Turkey was the first time they aligned alongside each other in the new lineup. The new tactical scheme is just three games old. But in the first, against Mexico in April, Altidore wasn't called up - only domestically-based players were. And in the first of the USA's three-game warm-up series ahead of the upcoming World Cup in Brazil against Azerbaijan on Tuesday, Dempsey was a late scratch with groin soreness.
If the nascent partnership's performance certainly wasn't perfect, it drew well-earned plaudits for its potential. Altidore and Dempsey ran off each other effectively and even if they weren't always entirely sharp and occasionally looked frustrated, they were a handful to Turkey's defense. Dempsey scored the second goal with a poacherâs effort he might not have been in a position to score had he been posted behind Altidore. They could be a productive pairing going forward.
"We balance each other out really well," Dempsey said following the game.
"Me and Clint have played together now a lot so we kind of know how each other works," Altidore chimed in. "I know what he likes to do; he knows what I like to do."
Both players felt the tactical tweak was helpful. "It takes attention off of me," said Altidore. "He [Dempsey] always draws a defender and that allows me to play more one-against-one. He just kind of feels the game out. He senses where to be and he gets in the right spots and he relieves pressure. It's good to have him up there."
"I thought we both were dangerous," added Dempsey.
That isn't to say they don't need to work on their union. Klinsmann is eager to give it to them, even though minutes are precious so close to the World Cup. "Clint and [Altidore], that's why I left them both out there for 90 minutes, they need to really fine-tune," he said. "They need to read each other blindly and that comes only over time. These two, they are dangerous. They are big-time players and they are hopefully making the difference for us this summer."
To Dempsey's mind, the key now is to get a better sense for where the other player is moving. "There are still more things to work on and we'll get sharper," he said. "It's important that you develop a partnership in terms of playing off of each other and creating chances for each other or with our movements opening up space for others. I think it's good that we mix up our play in that way. It'll make us be more dangerous."
The biggest beneficiary of all this could ultimately be Altidore, who is under pressure to begin scoring goals again. He scored seven goals in five games for the USA last summer. But after a campaign starved of scoring opportunities for Sunderland in which he scored just twice all year, he has yet to hit the net again for his country.
But flanked by Dempsey, Altidore had a hugely productive game, even if he didn't score, pressing high and hard in the opposing half, running at the defense, and knocking down balls for his teammates. "What we all wish is that he puts the ball in the net, I was joking with him about that before the game," said Klinsmann. "But overall, again, a very energetic performance. He keeps the whole back line busy. It is the Jozy that we want to see. He will sooner or later break through with goals. You've got to work for it. You've got to stay hungry and grind it out and sooner or later it's time and, boom, the ball is in the net."
"Jozy was unlucky not to get a goal today," added Dempsey. "And you can feel that it's coming."
For his tireless toil, Altidore even earned a positive review from the opposing coach, Turkey's Fatih Terim. "He's a very powerful striker, the type of striker that the center backs don't like much," he said.
The USA's win over Turkey may have been unconvincing, but in the process, they have found a winning formula up front.