By Ridge Mahoney
The delineation between forwards and strikers can be blurry, but there's no question Clint Dempsey is the top American up top.
Six goals in nine games for the USA last year confirmed his status as the most dangerous U.S. forward, and with Landon Donovan on hiatus, the focal point of its front-line attacking play.
In a traditional two-forward alignment, players of different abilities are often paired to present a more complex and difficult task to the opposing defense. Some players can swap roles comfortably, with one playing underneath the other, others are more limited even if they are effective. Teams that play with three forwards or one player alone up top add to the overlapping of assignments.
In the broadest terms, forwards are more versatile than strikers, who tend to play centrally in the restricted roles of posting up, playing one-twos, and getting shots on frame. Forwards have all of those responsibilities in addition to roaming side-to-side in search of space, floating into midfield to draw defenders and open up lanes, and using the wings to drive past opponents to serve crosses or take shots. The differences between a (second) forward and an attacking midfielder aren’t always clear, either.
These rankings are based on national team performances, future prospects, and other factors, such as club form.
Soccer America's Top 6 U.S. Forwards
1. Clint Dempsey (Tottenham), 91 caps
2. Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes), 10.
3. Juan Agudelo (Chivas USA), 16.
4. Chris Rolfe (Chicago Fire), 10.
5. Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City), 4.
6. Joe Gyau (St. Pauli), 1.
Also considered: Jesus Padilla (La Piedad)
His tally of five goals in 18 league matches isn’t all that impressive, yet Dempsey needed time to settle at Tottenham and convince Coach Andre Villas-Boas that he could play in support of teammates Jermaine Dafoe and Emmanuel Adebayor, or without them alone up top. His communication with winger Gareth Bale is also blossoming, as evidenced by his excellent headed goal against Coventry City in a 3-0 FA Cup win that was Deuce’s second of the game.
The main concern for Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, aside from injury, will be monitoring Dempsey’s energy levels, especially in the three Hexagonal qualifiers to be played in June after the English season has concluded. He will need plenty of support as opponents take their shots to stop him. His range of movement and variety of tricks gives him more attacking weapons than any other U.S. player.
Wondolowski’s frustrating stints with the national team -- no goals in 10 appearances that include a few glaring misses –- haven’t affected his MLS performances, though he’s also yet to net in a playoff game. The movement of the ball, the poise and balance with which he shoots, the exemplary commitment and workrate, and the attitude of a consummate pro would seem tailor made for the international game. He’s the top MLS forward yet is spinning his wheels for the USA.
After scoring on his debut in the post-2010 World Cup friendly against South Africa, Agudelo’s hit only one goal in the last 15 appearances. A move from the Red Bulls to Chivas USA didn’t revive his club career and a rumored transfer to Glasgow Celtic has further muddled his status. His only U.S. appearance last year produced an assist against Russia and though he looked capable in his 28 minutes of action he’s yet to prove that at age 20 he’s truly ready for this level.
Rolfe has been out of the national team since 2009 but there’s no doubt he’s among the most skillful and craftiest American MLS players. Whether that translates to call-ups from Klinsmann remains to be seen. His first season back in MLS following three up-and-down years in Denmark produced eight goals in 22 games; it’s not hard to see him in the Gold Cup squad this summer if he and the Fire start strongly.
Bunbury’s game features the pace and athleticism Klinsmann likes but a knee injury suffered in August limited him to just two U.S. games in 2012 and kept him out of the January camp. Once he recovers should be back on the U.S. radar screen by the back end of the Hexagonal schedule if not the Gold Cup.
A loan from Hoffenheim, which has replaced Fulham as the go-to club for American players, to St. Pauli in the German Bundesliga 2 is a key factor in the development of Gyau. He’s played for the U.S.-17s and U-20s, and last year played all four games for the U-23s in their failed attempt to qualify for the Olympic Games. Another player blessed with speed and skill, he needs some solid showings for St. Pauli to get a shot with the big team.
U.S. Positional Rankings: