Bobby Wood's Copa America has him looking like the future of the USMNT strikers
It may be true that Clint Dempsey has been the one leading the way for the Americans throughout this Copa America Centenario. Dempsey has scored three goals in their last three games en route to a spot in the semifinal on Tuesday.
But his stellar performance has really only been possible due to the hard work and grinding of one man: Bobby Wood.
Both goals against Ecuador in the quarterfinal -- a goal and an assist for Dempsey -- were started by Wood's hold-up play. In the first, Wood ran in behind the Ecuador back line and drew a pair of defenders near the corner before turning and spraying the ball back to Jermaine Jones. Dempsey smashed in Jones' one-time cross. Wood's role in the second goal was very similar, except on the finish Dempsey knocked the ball back to Gyasi Zardes for the tap-in.
"With Bobby, we have now a player that is just a warrior," USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters in Seattle. "He's just all over the field and he's giving everything for the team. On top of that, he's damn dangerous as well."
Just days before the Copa America roster was to be named, striker Jozy Altidore pulled his hamstring while taking a penalty kick for Toronto FC, ruling him out of the tournament -- and with that, it seemed that Klinsmann's Plan A had been thrown out the window. It was a similar setback the Americans faced in Brazil two years ago, with one key difference: Wood.
"When we go back two years ago with Jozy's injury in the first game [of the 2014 World Cup], that left a hole -- we all know that," Klinsmann said. "Now, we have Bobby Wood."
Altidore has long been the USA's go-to striker and partner with Dempsey in a two-striker system, but he just can't seem to stay healthy. Hamstring pulls also kept him out of the 2014 World Cup and the Gold Cups in 2011 and 2015.
Up until Wood's emergence, the U.S. has had little depth behind Altidore. The problem of holding onto strikers is one that has plagued the U.S. because the national team hasn't been able to find strikers who will stick, other than 33-year-old Dempsey. Over the years, there has been a long line of strikers who have come in and out of the national team's ranks but have ultimately been too unreliable or too inconsistent to carve out a permanent role.
Now, it looks like Wood may have staked his claim on Altidore's long-held spot as the target man going forward and may become the immediate answer to the USA's ongoing striker conundrum.
The 23-year-old has officially gotten on the scoresheet once in this Copa America, tallying a goal in the 4-0 blowout against Costa Rica in the USA's second group match. But he has quietly been one of the most effective and most important pieces of the squad throughout this tournament. His speed, the timing of his runs, his ability to win the ball -- it all enables Dempsey and the rest of the team to score goals.
"I was lucky that Jurgen always believed in me and a lot of the guys took me in," Wood said after the quarterfinal. "And I'm having a great time."
He's certainly playing like it, both for the national team and in the club ranks. Playing for Union Berlin in the 2 Bundesliga, Wood scored 17 goals last season, the third-most in Germany's second division. Last month, he signed a four-year deal to join Hamburg in the Bundesliga, one of the top leagues in the world.
The potential for what Wood can achieve with the national team seems wide open right now. A newcomer and relative unknown to many fans even just a year ago, Wood is now looking like the future of the U.S. attack and an early lock for the World Cup.
But Wood's excellent performance throughout Copa America leaves the U.S. in a bit of a pickle for the semifinal. The Hawaii native is suspended on yellow card accumulation just as the U.S. prepares to face Argentina, the best team in the world. The U.S. Soccer Federation tried to appeal his card but was denied.
It's hard to see anyone filling Wood's spot and doing it just as well as he does. The issue is compounded by the fact that central midfielder Jermaine Jones and winger Alejandro Bedoya will also be suspended, which will force Klinsmann to make other tough choices. But finding a suitable replacement for Wood will be crucial.
One lesson that we learned in the Copa America opener against Colombia is that, to get the most out of Dempsey, the U.S. must give Dempsey a striking partner in a 4-4-2. Wood has been an ideal fit because of his speed and clever runs to stretch defenses.
The next best option on the table is clearly Gyasi Zardes. Though he may lack the first touch and finishing of Wood, Zardes is fast and will be able to do the hard work to set up Dempsey, just as he did in the USA's 1-0 win over Paraguay. Striker Chris Wondolowski, who is also an option, doesn't have nearly the pace or Wood-like skillset to be the right fit.
Regardless of what Klinsmann does, there is little doubt that the absence of Wood will hurt the Americans quite a bit. But with Copa America matches going to penalty kicks if tied after 90 minutes, anything is possible. And Wood may get one last chance to help the Americans define success if the U.S. can somehow advance.
If the U.S. don't make it past the semifinal on Tuesday, Wood will still be remembered as a difference-maker in what has been a successful run through the Copa America Centenario.