By Ridge Mahoney
Not so long ago, scoring goals seemed a big enough problem for the U.S. national team that head coach Jurgen Klinsmanndipped into the ranks of German reserve teams in search of a reliable striker.
Terrence Boyd was laboring for Borussia Dortmund’s reserves while being tracked by U-23 head coach Caleb Porterand Klinsmann. He scored twice for the U-23s during the Concacaf qualifying tournament for the 2012 Olympics, and since debuting for the senior team against Italy last year he’s made nine U.S. appearances and moved onto Rapid Vienna, for which he scored 15 goals during the 2012-13 season.
The situation up front currently for the USA is encouraging enough that Boyd might not be recalled when Hexagonal play resumes in September. Though scorers tend to sail through hot streaks and battle through lean spells, the Americans have multiple options from which Klinsmann can select.
Jozy Altidorescored in four straight games earlier this year and Chris Wondolowskinetted six goals in three matches before being blanked in a 1-0 defeat of Costa Rica last Tuesday that propelled the U.S. into the Gold Cup quarterfinals as Group C winner. Clint Dempseyis also in scoring mode; he’s netted five times in eight U.S. matches this season, and during the Gold Cup Landon Donovan showed enough zip to suggest he can hit the net as well though he did scuff a good opportunity in the Costa Rica game.
“At a certain point with goalscorers -- and you can use [Fernando] Torres as an example -- it gets so bad, you’re in so deep a slump, there’s no pressure any more because no one’s expecting you to score,” says former U.S. international and NBC analyst Kyle Martino. “Everyone’s expecting you to fail. That lack of pressure and getting back to the basics and just playing your game, that’s when you see goalscorers get back to scoring.”
Wondolowski’s breakout goal – which ended a drought in his first nine U.S. games -- in a friendly against Guatemala July 5 came on an absolute sitter from just a few yards out, but it prompted a hat trick against Belize and two more goals in a defeat of Cuba. Altidore hadn’t scored for the U.S. in a year and a half (since November 2011) but went on a tear after nailing a Graham Zusicross against Germany June 2, and he followed up by netting one apiece in World Cup qualifying victories over Jamaica, Panama and Honduras that sent the USA to the top of the Hexagonal standings.
Both Wondolowski and Altidore have scored consistently for the club teams. Wondo tied the MLS season record last year by netting 27 goals for the Quakes, but his struggles for the USA – especially a few crucial misses in the 2011 Gold Cup -- and in the 2012 MLS playoffs for San Jose tarnished his reputation. Altidore set a record for an American in a foreign league by scoring 31 goals last season for Dutch club AZ even as his barren U.S. run continued.
“Service helps out,” says Martino in the case of Altidore. “I don’t it’s a coincidence that Jozy Altidore started scoring again once Jurgen Klinsmann adjusted things to get him a little more service and a little more support. They’ve moved slightly into a more vintage 4-4-2 look, with Graham Zusi delivering outstanding service from the right side and Dempsey playing a little closer to [Altidore] than he used to.
“Ask any forward that plays up top by himself; they say that they can handle the challenge -- the second you’re on an island by yourself, it becomes difficult. That’s not what it’s like for his club team; he gets a tremendous amount of support up top. He had a lot of service, which he wasn’t getting with the USA. That, compounded with the fact he was getting criticized and the pressure was mounting, handcuffed him.”
Wondolowski still has to prove he can score for the U.S. in a meaningful competitive match, but after scoring against Guatemala – the fifth U.S. goal in a six-goal romp – he reiterated the need to rely on instinct. “You just get in there and rely on muscle memory and just try to finish it to the best of your ability,” he said.
“It’s one of those things for a goalscorer; it’s huge to get the confidence and the momentum going. Hopefully [the goals] keep coming.”
One forward who hasn’t been in the team much this year is Herculez Gomez, who didn’t play in the May and June matches and during the Gold Cup left the USA to return to Club Tijuana, which opened the Liga MX season Friday by tying Atlas, 3-3. Gomez scored the first U.S. goal in the rout of Guatemala, then was replaced for the Gold Cup knockout round by Wondolowski’s San Jose teammate, Alan Gordon. Knee problems continue to bother Gomez, who could need surgery.
Gordon plays as a target forward in the Altidore mold. Gomez, like Eddie Johnson, has also been used by Klinsmann as a wide midfielder. Donovan knows Gordon from their days together at the Galaxy, and though the initial selection of Gordon elicited surprise, in 18 minutes of play during his debut last year he set up the winning goal for Johnson against Antigua & Barbuda.
Wondolowski has also been used in midfield by San Jose, which occasionally deploys Gordon and Steven Lenhart up front. Klinsmann wants as much versatility in his players as possible, and this could be an important factor as the coach decides between Johnson, Gomez and Wondolowski has he fills out the attacking slots on his roster. Scoring is vitally important but so is playing the role assigned by the coach.
Not surprisingly, Gordon swears by his club teammate, Wondo. “I have not played with anybody like him,” says Gordon, a veteran of nearly a decade of MLS play. “He’s a top-class finisher. He’s someone I try to learn from every single day, I really do.”