By Ridge Mahoney
The axiom that goalscorers tend to connect in streaks has certainly been the case for the U.S. national team recently.
Eddie Johnsonscored in his second straight game Wednesday in a 3-1 Gold Cup semifinal defeat of Honduras. Chris Wondolowskiscored in three straight games before being blanked against Costa Rica, and in June Jozy Altidore tallied in four straight matches.
The key is not just the forwards themselves, according to former U.S. internationals Kyle Martinoand Eric Wynalda. They are feasting on what is second only to finishing in the scoring of goals: high-quality, consistent service.
“I don’t think 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,” says Martino, who is NBC’s lead soccer analyst.
Herculez Gomez-- the No. 1 striker at the end of the 2012 World Cup qualifying campaign -- had to leave the Gold Cup team because of injury, yet it has still set a U.S. record for goals in the tournament (19) with the final Sunday against Panama yet to be played. Landon Donovan’s torrid form -- five goals and seven assists and dozens of menacing moves -- is a primary factor, yet he’s been on the end of quality serves nearly as often as he’s been providing them.
Donovan laid off a ball for Johnson to take through the Honduran defense and score the first goal, then got on the end of balls knocked across the goalmouth by Alejandro Bedoya, who had replaced Joe Corona for the semifinal. In the 5-1 quarterfinal rout of El Salvador, Donovan fluffed three good scoring chances in addition to scoring a goal and setting up three others. Though not credited with an assist, Donovan also played a ball that Wondolowski relayed to Corona, who smacked it into the bottom corner.
The resistance has been weak in several of the U.S. Gold Cup games, yet never before in the team’s history has it produced so many chances consistently.
“It’s a lot different from the time that everyone was so critical of our forwards, but the difference is, the service has been great,” says Wynalda, who held the U.S. record of 34 goals until Donovan surpassed him. “The supporting cast around whoever happens to be up there has been nothing short of fantastic. The service on some of the goals from Wondolowski and [Kyle] Beckerman, specifically, was poetry in motion.”
Altidore hadn’t scored for the USA 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.
Altidore, who 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, credited his U.S. scoring streak to making the necessary adjustments to playing for the USA, yet the dynamics of the team have changed as well.
“They’ve moved slightly into a more vintage 4-4-2 look, with Graham Zusi delivering outstanding service from the right side and [Clint] Dempsey playing a little closer to [Altidore] than he used to,” says Martino.
Dempsey has also been in scoring mode, tallying in five goals in eight U.S. games this year while usually playing in the "hole" underneath the forward.
“Ask any forward that plays up top by themselves; they say that they can handle the challenge -- the second you’re on an island by yourself, it becomes difficult,” says Martino. “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 U.S. That, compounded with the fact he was getting criticized and the pressure was mounting, handcuffed him.”
Two other factors at play are the team’s depth and a sense that no matter who is playing in which positions, chances can be created. Maybe Bedoya played so Corona could rest for the final, yet Bedoya took his opportunity boldly. The return of Omar Gonzalez didn’t propel him into the lineup for the semifinal; instead, Clarence Goodson kept his spot and with a pair of accurate balls out of the back set in motion the sequences that produced the first and third goals.
Despite Wondolowski’s roller-coaster record with the national team, he epitomizes the determination and belief that seems to permeate the squad. He goes balls-out for every ball and is utterly committed to the cause. Wynalda sees those qualities in every player that Klinsmann has selected for his busy stretch of games during the past two months.
“The way this has been working is that belief system is working,” says Wynalda. “The passes have been there, the runs have been there. There have been so many close calls and somebody says, ‘Oh, man, almost, good job.”
“The good news is,’ By the way, that guy just made a really good pass.’ It used to be, ‘Oh, sh--, that was it, that was our one chance, the one time he was able to figure out how to cross the ball.’ We don’t think that way anymore. We think, ‘Oh, he’ll be able to do that again, because he’s good and I believe in him, so I’m going to run again.’ And sure enough, it hits you in the eyebrow, and goal!”
For signs of the team’s solidarity and maturity, Wynalda judges not reactions to goals, but to adversity, such as persistent fouling by Honduras, or the near-misses that result from intelligent approach work.
“How many times has Landon pointed back at the person that passed him the ball?,” asks Wynalda. “How many times has Wondolowski pointed back to the guy who passed him the ball? In my opinion that’s the most important part because it’s the recognition of a great pass.
“This team is a hell of a lot better than we thought and we think. It’s one of those situations where we’re in the moment and it’s hard to appreciate it for what it is. The team is really playing well, it’s really functioning well.”