Filling in for Jozy Altidore: Three potential replacements
RECIFE, Brazil -- From the moment Jurgen Klinsmann announced his 23-man roster on May 22, among the bigger concerns was what the U.S. would do if striker Jozy Altidore got injured.
With the news that Altidore is officially out of Sunday's match against Portugal after suffering a strained left hamstring Monday against Ghana, that fear has been realized.
It must be said, Klinsmann's decision not to include a like-for-like replacement for Altidore on the roster was a head-scratcher that has morphed into a blunder. Given the strength of the Americans' Group G opponents, possession was always going to be a struggle. That concern was borne out against Ghana, who owned the ball for vast stretches of Monday's encounter. Altidore's ability to provide an outlet, hold the ball up, and link with teammates was expected to be a partial antidote to that weakness.
In his absence, Aron Johannsson -- who, to be fair, is a different kind of player than Altidore -- struggled to provide those attributes. Had Klinsmann included Terrence Boyd or Eddie Johnson, he wouldn't be in this predicament. But the roster deadline has long since passed, and now the U.S. and Klinsmann must find a solution.
In terms of options, Klinsmann has a few, though none of them are anywhere near ideal. One is to go 4-3-3 with Johannsson as the central striker, Clint Dempsey on one wing and Graham Zusi or Alejandro Bedoya on the other. It's a position that Johannsson has played at club level, which would give him a greater level of comfort. It might also serve to spare Dempsey and his broken nose from too many entanglements with hulking central defenders.
A big problem with this is that the U.S. has rarely played such a formation, and there just doesn't seem to be time to gain enough familiarity and cohesion before Sunday.
Another is to deploy Dempsey as the lone striker and use Zusi or Mix Diskerud as an extra midfielder. It's an intriguing idea in theory. A player like Zusi, whose strengths lie on the creative side, might be able to help the U.S. maintain possession better. But the U.S. has struggled with such an alignment in the past in that the midfield didn't always provide the needed level of support for Altidore. The result was that he was often stranded with no one to pass the ball to. Given Dempsey's broken nose -- which may affect his breathing and hence his stamina -- that option seems even less palatable.
That means Klinsmann likely will opt for a two-striker alignment, and it would seem he has three choices. Persist with Johannsson, bring in Chris Wondolowski, or turn to Diskerud with explicit instructions that he stay close to Dempsey.
If Johannsson is the choice, then it might be advisable for him and Dempsey to swap the respective roles they filled against Ghana, or at least alternate for stretches. Johannsson is not a back-to-goal kind of player. Neither is Dempsey, of course, and the downside is that you are taking away one of his best attributes, namely running at defenders.
But Dempsey has filled that role at times in the past for both club and country when need arose, and he performs the task better than any of the remaining forwards on the U.S. roster. Playing in support of Dempsey would allow Johannsson to face up to goal and threaten either off the dribble or with a pass.
Dempsey and Wondolowski were paired up in April's 2-2 draw against Mexico, with the latter player scoring the U.S. side's second goal in that match. It was a game that also saw Wondolowski link up well with his teammates, though his primary attributes remain his clever movement and nose for goal.
Diskerud is an interesting choice in that he's the best passer out of the three. If he can be disciplined enough to stay close to Dempsey, it might go a long way toward helping the U.S. keep the ball better.
Granted, it won't matter whom Klinsmann puts up top alongside Dempsey if the rest of the U.S. lineup doesn't do a better job of keeping possession. While that responsibility lies primarily on the midfield, the back line will need to be more precise with its distribution out of the back as well. That said, Diskerud's inclusion seems a long shot. The more logical choice comes down to Johannsson or Wondolowski, with the AZ striker's greater technical ability giving him a slight edge. Both figure to see the field against Portugal. At that point, it will be revealed if the U.S. can make the best of a difficult situation.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.