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The Fault in Our Strikers

Why is the USMNT striker pool so thin?

On Tuesday, Argentina will be starting Messi. On Tuesday, the USMNT might be starting ... Wondolowski? Oh dear.
On Tuesday, Argentina will be starting Messi. On Tuesday, the USMNT might be starting ... Wondolowski? Oh dear.
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the new year, Jozy Altidore came back to the national team for January Camp and looked good. He looked quick, lean, and strong. He had a spring in his step and looked to have stepped his game back up. Altidore scored twice in two games against Iceland and Canada. In the return leg against Guatemala for the World Cup qualifiers, Altidore scored again. In the opening matches of the MLS season, Altidore looked good for Toronto FC, in spite of a drought of goals. Going into the Copa America Centenario, Jozy Altidore looked to be ready to leave his mark in front of a bigger crowd.

Then Altidore pulled up with a hamstring strain. He'd be out until July, missing the entire Copa America. Altidore was the unquestioned starter for the USMNT, and the last time the team went without him, the 2014 World Cup after he went out with a previous muscle strain, the team's attack sputtered. The USMNT looked to be in the same situation going into the tournament.

At this point, Bobby Wood stepped in. Wood had just completed a fantastic season in the 2. Bundesliga, earning him a move up to Hamburg in the top flight German League. The young striker had a big role to fill, and, you know what? He's risen to the occasion. He's been a hard worker and has been constantly battling with center backs. His hold up play has been great and he's been making threatening runs. While he only scored once, against Costa Rica, he's been a part of a number of goals throughout the Copa. However, he picked up a yellow card in the quarterfinal against Ecuador, his second of the tournament, to get himself suspended from the semifinal. Bobby Wood's absence leaves just one striker to take his spot from the bench. We could very well be seeing Chris Wondolowski start against Argentina, the highest ranked team in the world.

Yeah, that scares me, too.

Now, let's be fair for a moment. Wondo might not be starting this match. In fact, it would make more sense for Gyasi Zardes to be pushed up from the wing into the striker role alongside Dempsey. That would allow for the US to at least continue to have a physical presence up top to do some hold up play. Zardes has many faults (Ok, I'm talking about his touch here) but his runs into the box are very good. His strength and speed present major concerns for any center back pairing. He's not as good as Wood, but he can do a job. Of course, moving Zardes up the field still means replacing a player, a winger instead of a striker. Zardes' efforts, particularly in defense, would need to be replicated. You also have to remember, the team is playing with three forced changes, plus the return of DeAndre Yedlin. Moving Zardes would be a fifth lineup change, messing with chemistry that has finally been created in this tournament and has led to a semifinal run. While I think the change is worth it, Klinsmann may disagree and slot Wondo in.

Wondolowski himself is not a bad player. With the San Jose Earthquakes, he's scored 112 goals in just over 200 appearances. He's scored double digit goals each of the last 6 years (with one spent in midfield), with 4 of those years exceeding 15 league goals. In 2012, he tied the league's single-season goal scoring record. Wondo is, quite simply, a fantastic goal scorer. This season, he already has 7 goals in just 12 appearances. So what's up with the negativity?

Wondo has made his name as a poacher. That's why he has so many goals... and that's the problem. Wondo is all about drifting into space in the box and pouncing on chances. And he's very good at it. With another national team, he might have scored a glut of international goals. But he plays for this national team. And the USMNT does not have space to properly utilize a poacher. Poachers aren't known for playing hold up play in the box, nor for creating chances for other players, nor for battling with center backs to create space. They are purely about scoring goals. That happens to sound a whole lot like Clint Dempsey. Dempsey has made his name bagging scrappy goals and pouncing on set pieces. While Dempsey has a little bit of ability to play the ball for his teammates, it's hard to justify putting him on a team that struggles to create chances. But his scoring ability is so important for the US, he's forced himself onto the lineup even as he ages. Wondo isn't as good of a player, so we can't have this discussion. The San Jose star can't force himself into the team, and his skill sets don't line up. On the field, Wondo ends up being dead-weight at times.

At this point, we have to ask ourselves how we got here. Why is Wondo the only alternative striker on the bench for Klinsmann? That means looking at the player pool. Quite frankly, there aren't enough American strikers. There's a host of injured ones. Aron Johannsson. Terrence Boyd. Rubio Rubin just came back from injury. And of course, Altidore. Unless Klinsmann wanted to pull CJ Sapong or Alan Gordon out of nowhere for the team, there's really only two options: Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris. Agudelo has had his career disrupted by injuries and sporadic form. This season, while clearly a talented striker, he's seen his minutes severely reduced with the New England Revolution. It looks like he's up for trade this summer.

And that brings us to Jordan Morris. In 2014, to the surprise of basically everyone following the USMNT, Jurgen Klinsmann called up a college player named Jordan Morris. Morris quickly showed why he deserved to be called up. After another year at Stanford, Morris signed with the Seattle Sounders. By all accounts, he's had a good start to the season, scoring 5 goals.

Yet, I don't think Morris solves the USMNT's problems anymore than Wondolowski does. Morris doesn't play hold-up very well. He relies on his pace to get on the end of balls, and to pounce on sloppy play. While I can see Morris playing striker alongside Wood in the USMNT's near future, I don't see him slotting in Wood's place. Not unless he develops a few vital skills. I still think he should have been in the squad (Wondo is 33 and Morris can play on the wing), but that still wouldn't have helped us out against Argentina.

It's okay to be disappointed if Wondo starts against Argentina. I know I will be. But don't put the blame on the player. He's doing his best and it's everyone's dream to be playing in these sorts of matches. Don't blame Klinsmann for picking him over Morris. After Altidore and Wood, the USMNT just doesn't have players to play as a target forward. And that's just reality.