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Shuffling forward(s)
by Ridge Mahoney, May 28th, 2008 7AM

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Three years ago, during preparations for a match against England, U.S. striker Eddie Johnson suffered an ankle injury from which he, and the national team, have yet to recover.

Johnson, 21 at the time, had been acclaimed as a vital component of the forward corps for perhaps the next decade -- and a strong candidate to lead the attack in the aftermath of Brian McBride's retirement following the 2006 World Cup. He regained fitness in time for that tournament, during which Clint Dempsey, not Johnson, scored a goal that expedited his inevitable move from MLS to Europe. Dempsey had also scored his first U.S. goal in that 2005 game against England, a 2-1 loss in Chicago.

Now, both are playing in the English Premier League for Fulham: Dempsey with some success, and Johnson a virtual non-entity since his arrival last January after restoring some of his luster by scoring 16 goals for Kansas City in his final MLS season. Though defender Carlos Bocanegra has been released by the London club, both Dempsey, who led the team with six league goals, and Johnson are in the team's plans for the future.

They are two of numerous question marks as U.S. coach Bob Bradley searches for the right combination(s). Johnson strike rate (11 goals in 32 games) is more than respectable but many of those goals came prior to his 2005 injury. He scored just two goals in 11 games last year, and only one in the same number of appearances the year before.

In an ideal world, Bradley would find a suitable pair as well as a complement for Landon Donovan, which would leave him free to use Donovan either up top or in midfield, as he's done so often in the past. As was the case for his predecessor Bruce Arena, Bradley faces the dilemma that his best second forward, best right mid and best attacking mid are all the same person.

The return to health of DaMarcus Beasley, who recovered from a serious knee injury last November just in time to score for Glasgow Rangers in the Scottish Cup final last Saturday, adds impetus from midfield, and gives Bradley a bit more leeway to experiment with his forwards.

Also in the squad for the England match are the Mutt and Jeff team of polar opposites similar only in that both are out of contract: Nate Jaqua (tall, strong, but with just two caps) and Josh Wolff (speedy yet small).

Wolff, 31, has nine U.S. goals to his credit but hasn't netted for his country since 2005. Jaqua (6-foot-4) can be the big forward to mesh with Donovan's pace and guile, and a short stint in Austria since leaving MLS has accelerated the process of sharpening his touch and vision. At age 26, he has room and time to improve, but how much?

At this point, Dempsey (38 caps, nine goals) leads the pack and has meshed well with Donovan (99 caps, 35 goals) in the past, but Bradley knows he needs at least two more dependable forwards to navigate the heavy schedule of friendlies and qualifiers that loom during the next 18 months. Plus, Dempsey is something of a second forward-type himself despite being five inches taller and more than 20 pounds heavier than Donovan. He's also said in the past he prefers to play in midfield.

There aren't many more European options available in the short term, unless someone from the under-23 team blossoms at the Olympic Games or Pat Noonan comes back into the picture, so Bradley will have to also work on his MLS options in the next month.

Taylor Twellman has been prolific in MLS but seldom effective for the national team, Brian Ching is rugged and honest but is no Brian McBride, and Jozy Altidore, who may join the European contingent this summer, won't be 19 until November. Most of the U.S. goals in the past few games have come from defenders or midfielders, so opportunity is ripe for players up top to step up.

Bradley's ultimate test will probably come at the 2010 World Cup, and he needs a team capable of scoring more than one goal, as it did in 2006 (Italian defender Christian Zaccardo contributed an own goal) to attain anything assuming it advances that far.

 



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