By Ridge Mahoney
He's been inconsistent for the national team, and his touches still need work, but the former MetroStar has climbed atop the ladder of U.S. strikers by scoring like crazy in the Netherlands.
All strikers go through maddening scoreless droughts, and perhaps no U.S. player in recent history has maddened fans more than Jozy Altidore.
“Lazy,” “slow,” and “ponderous” are among the descriptors used. Those supposed flaws haven’t impaired him much in the Dutch League, and thus he’s No. 1 among a list of players arbitrarily assigned to this category. In general terms, a striker often plays furthest forward among the attackers and/or serves as the focal point – if not necessarily the preferred target – when the ball gets across the halfway line.
Classifying these players as strikers, and others as forwards (in Wednesday’s edition), is not to declare they can’t be deployed together. Herculez Gomez is adept at piercing runs with or without a partner up top, and Alan Gordon has shown an ability in San Jose to play paired another striker-type (Steven Lenhart) or a forward (Chris Wondolowski) or both of them. But a combination of Altidore (striker) and Clint Dempsey (forward) seems to make the most sense.
The rankings will be updated later in the year. They are based on national team performances, future prospects, and club form, among other factors.
Soccer America's Top 6 U.S. Strikers
1. Jozy Altidore (AZ), 52 caps.
2. Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna), 7.
3. Herculez Gomez (Santos), 19.
4T. Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), 1.
4T. Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo), 0.
6. Kenny Cooper (New York Red Bulls), 10.
Also considered: C.J. Sapong (Sporting Kansas City), 2.
He still frustrates many U.S. fans, as well as Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, yet Altidore’s scoring rate since moving to the Netherlands has explained, somewhat, the insistence of former national team coach Bob Bradley to play him as much as possible. By hitting 29 goals in 52 games for AZ, he’s proven he can consistently hit the net in a good league. Confidence borne of club success should boost his national team performances and sharpen his touch and movement in tight spaces.
His strike rate of 13 goals in 52 U.S. matches is solid but he didn’t score in seven appearances last year, triggering louder howls of protest. In the Hexagonal he can truly confirm a place in the starting lineup. Goals are the first barometer of evaluating a striker, but if he’s causing problems and the Americans are scoring, how many he gets isn’t all that important. He needs to tie up defenders, deliver good balls to teammates, dominate in the air, and take a few cracks on frame. If he opens up spaces that Dempsey exploits, all is well.
Boyd is off to a great start in Austria, with nine goals in 17 matches. He can play as a target man, and his ball that set up Michael Orozco Fiscal for the goal that beat Mexico in Azteca Stadium last August suggests he’s learning some box savvy as well. He could give Klinsmann a very enticing option if his goalscoring form continues, and at 22 (in February) there’s vast room for improvement.
A rather tepid Apertura season for Gomez (four goals in 12 games) drops him behind Boyd for the time being, but he’s already scored once in the 2013 Clausura and his experience playing against Hexagonal opponents is sure to be utilized by Klinsmann. Two of his three goals last year came in qualifiers, and the other was against Brazil. This is his first Hexagonal, yet at age 30, he’ll be counted on for poise under pressure. He can run down balls over the top and slice through back lines on the dribble or in pursuit.
If the debut of Gordon was surprising, his assist during an 18-minute substitute appearance against Antigua & Barbuda was astounding. As one of the better big men (6-foot-3) in MLS, Gordon is also an experienced veteran who takes commitment to team very personally, and he’s nimbler than he looks at first glance. Only six players topped his total of 13 goals last year.
In his second pro season, Bruin placed just behind Gordon by scoring 12 goals, and lit up the postseason by netting four more. He’s shown a knack for timing his runs well, is quick over the first few yards, and doesn’t back away from the physical duels. Klinsmann has given opportunities to talented, eager, young players, and the Dynamo man certainly qualifies in those areas.
Another big man, Cooper, topped everybody except Chris Wondolowski by scoring 18 goals but Klinsmann never called, which extends his run of exclusion that dates back to a sub appearance in the 2009 Hexagonal finale against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium. His last U.S. goal came in the ’09 Gold Cup semifinal against Honduras; might he get a recall for the same tournament this summer?
Sapong scored nine MLS goals and debuted for the U.S. last year after winning MLS Rookie of the Year honors in 2011. He was excluded from the January camp this time around.
U.S. Positional Rankings: