It’s strange that something that seems to happen so regularly still can have such a significant impact on plans and projections.
But that’s the upshot of yet another Jozy Altidore hamstring injury. The veteran striker’s misfortune, which will impact his participation in a fourth consecutive major tournament, opens the door for another forward to make U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s Copa América roster. The list of 23 men who will contest the Copa is due to tournament organizers Friday and will be announced on Saturday.
Altidore’s absence also forces a tactical rethink. He’s the only bona fide target forward in the U.S. pool, meaning variations of the 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 Klinsmann has used in the past now appear less likely.
“It’s a huge bummer for all of us, but especially for Jozy, because he had so much drive and ambition going towards the Copa America,” Klinsmann told reporters in Miami, where the U.S. is training for the weekend friendly in Puerto Rico that’s the first of three ahead of the tournament. “Obviously it’s a big blow for us and him personally, but there’s nothing we can do about it, unfortunately.”
Well, there is something they can do about it. Klinsmann failed to adapt when Altidore was hurt in the opening minutes of the 2014 World Cup. Playing Clint Dempsey further up with Michael Bradley underneath left both players too high up the field, and the Americans’ ability to possess the ball and establish any kind of rhythm was nullified. Dempsey likes to be close to goal—he’s the national team’s best finisher—but he’s also vital when he retreats into pockets of space and creates. Bradley, meanwhile, is at his best when he can organize and make the first or second pass after a turnover or hit a longer ball into space.
In next month’s Copa, where the U.S. will meet Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay, Dempsey will have to rely on the speed of Bobby Wood, Jordan Morris or Gyasi Zardes, rather than Altidore’s savvy and brawn, to carve out space in the attacking third. Two forwards means four men in midfield, and with Bradley and Jermaine Jones likely to occupy two of those slots, the prospects for a destroyer like Kyle Beckerman or a playmaker like Darlington Nagbe become less certain.
Altidore’s injury has given Klinsmann plenty to think about as he trains the early arrivals in Florida. There are a few, like Tim Ream or Michael Orozco, who may be trying out for one of the final spots on the squad. A door has opened for an extra attacker or midfielder as well.
The Copa will be a difficult, challenging tournament played under a bright spotlight. It will serve as a referendum on Klinsmann’s progress midway through his first full four-year cycle with the national team. It also will inform several significant choices going forward. Will the vets continue to hold on, or will results suggest that it’s time to turn the page two years before the World Cup?
Here, in Planet Fútbol’s estimation, are the 23 players who will help answer those questions:
Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
There’s the potential for a soap opera between the posts. Guzan had a trying season with relegated Aston Villa and will be eager to prove himself with the national team, which he backstopped at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Howard, who returned from a year-long international sabbatical and seemed to become choice 1A pretty quickly, has no intention off ceding the starting spot long term. The 37-year-old has even talked about sticking around for the flight to Russia.
Klinsmann cares deeply about roster chemistry and may conclude that Guzan and Howard won’t be in the mood to mentor this summer. The identity of the third goalie typically isn’t a big deal. They almost never play. Normally, it might make sense to bring an international newbie along and show him the tournament ropes. This summer, however, stability and predictability will be more important as Guzan and Howard vie to start. And if neither is able to recapture his form, that third spot will become all the more important. Rimando it is.
Cut: David Bingham (San Jose Earthquakes), Ethan Horvath (Molde)
Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Steve Birnbaum (D.C. United), John Brooks (Hertha Berlin), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Monterrey), Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), DeAndre Yedlin (Sunderland)
Klinsmann will want the best specialists available and then a couple players who can handle themselves either in the center or out wide. Cameron and Birnbaum are capable, with the D.C. United man edging out Michael Orozco thanks to an impressive January camp and a more significant role with his club.
The manager still seems to have confidence in the up-and-down (at least internationally) Chandler, while Castillo’s play for Liga MX leader Monterrey has thrust him back in the picture. In addition, the latter will likely be more comfortable against Copa opposition then the likes of Tim Ream or Eric Lichaj.
Cut: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Ventura Alvarado (Club América), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana), Tim Ream (Fulham)
Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Alejandro Bedoya (Nantes), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Fabian Johnson (Borussia Monchengladbach), Jermaine Jones (Colorado Rapids), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
This group of eight midfielders gives Klinsmann the options and flexibility he prefers. Beckerman offers defensive stability if the manager wants both Bradley and Jones in a box-to-box role. Johnson offers speed on the wing (as does Zardes, who’s listed as a forward), while Bedoya and Zusi provide the skill and vision to create on the flanks or in the channels.
If Klinsmann wants a more dynamic attacking presence in the middle, he can look to Nagbe. Several forwards, like Dempsey, Wood and Pulisic, also can withdraw, link and attack from deeper spots. The permutations are plentiful, which is what Klinsmann likes.
Cut: Mix Diskerud (New York City FC), Perry Kitchen (Heart of Midlothian), Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt), Lee Nguyen (New England Revolution), Danny Williams (Reading)
Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Bobby Wood (Union Berlin), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
Klinsmann’s toughest calls are here. Wondolowski is in form (he scored two more goals in San Jose’s friendly victory over Spain’s Real Sociedad on Wednesday) and Finlay has made an excellent impression in his early U.S. outings. But Klinsmann has a lot more time and personal capital invested in Morris, Wood and Zardes, and their speed and confidence on the ball could prove vital in Altidore’s absence.
Morris’s spot probably is the most tenuous, but his upside gives him the slight edge over Wondolowski.
Cut: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Ethan Finlay (Columbus Crew), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes)