United States World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann boarded the team’s flight to Manaus on Friday with a big decision to mull over: What is the best way to replace Jozy Altidore for Sunday’s match against Portugal?
Altidore, the big, physical forward from Boca Raton who draws defenders and opens space for teammates, strained his left hamstring early in the opening 2-1 victory over Ghana. He is unavailable for Sunday’s match, and there is no striker on the roster with a similar build or style, so Klinsmann has to change the look of his attack.
He can go with speedy Aron “Ice Man” Johannsson, the Kevin Bacon lookalike who was born in Mobile and attended IMG Academy in Bradenton for his senior year of high school, but spent 19 of his 23 years in his parents’ native Iceland. Johansson is who Klinsmann turned to when Altidore went down Monday night, and though he had trouble getting anything going against Ghana’s physical defenders, he might have more luck against a depleted Portugal back line that will be missing the suspended Pepe and injured Fabio Coentrao.
Johannsson scored 21 goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league and can be deadly in the box, which is why the Icelandic Soccer Federation was so upset that Johannsson, a dual citizen, chose to represent the U.S. when Klinsmann called on him last year.
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Another option to replace Altidore up front is the opportunistic Chris “Wondo’’ Wondolowski, the San Jose Earthquakes fan favorite who is part Native American and whose tribal name means “warrior coming over the hill.” He is not the biggest, quickest or most skilled forward of the U.S. bunch, but he can hold the ball well and has an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time and find the back of the net.
Wondolowski led Major League Soccer with 27 goals in 32 games in 2012 and was named league MVP. He also led MLS in scoring in 2010, with 18 goals in 28 games. He has scored nine goals for the U.S. since last year, including a hat trick in a Gold Cup match against Belize. Not bad for a guy who was overlooked by Division I college programs, wound up playing at Division II Chico State (California) and was taken 41st in the 2005 MLS Draft.
When Klinsmann named Wondolowski to the 30-man preliminary roster, he said: “It’s always a pleasure to have him in camp. He is a competitor. He is determined. You give him a one percent chance, and he wants to make it 100 percent at the end of the day.”
Both Johannsson and Wondolowski conceded that they cannot replicate Altidore’s game, but if called upon, they vowed to aid the U.S. attack in their own ways.
“Jozy is a special player,” Wondolowski said. “You can’t [just fill in one player for another]. That’s like saying, ‘Hey, go be Cristiano Ronaldo.’ You can’t necessarily replace certain aspects of another player’s game, but I think that both Aron and I bring different styles, different sets of skills that I think are useful, and I think what we have to do is incorporate those skills sets and also be able to fit into the game plan as well.”
Teammates say they have faith in both forwards and that each brings something a little different to the attack.
“Wondo is a guy, I mean, he can score from anything,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “He can score when you think there’s no chance and then next thing you know, he scores. He is also a guy that does so much for the team. He plays defense, he works his tail off for the guy behind him. He does a lot of things that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Aron, he’s a guy that does similar things. He’s got this kind of attitude about scoring that he just kind of does it, and he feels like he has to do that. He’s crafty, he’s really tricky with the ball. They both have some pace that can get away and get their shot off from nothing as well. We’re confident in them. Injuries happen, so that’s why you bring 23 players.”
Added midfielder Jermaine Jones: “I would say Wondo is more [of] a finisher in the box, and Aron is more the guy who is good with the ball and does one against one better.”
Then, of course, there is a chance that Klinsmann goes with neither Johannsson nor Wondolowski and opts instead to play five midfielders, with Clint Dempsey as a lone striker up top. He could put Jones and Beckerman in front of the back line as defensive mids, then have workhorses Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi manning the flanks, and Michael Bradley as more of an attacking midfielder delivering the ball.
The formation might also help cut off the passes to Portuguese superstar Ronaldo, who is expected to play despite nursing a bum knee and being slowed in training this week.
Beckerman said that no matter who Klinsmann chooses to fill in for Altidore, it will take a team effort to get a second victory against a Portuguese club that is desperate after losing 4-0 to Germany in its opener.
“Any formation we play, it’s going to take everybody watching each other’s backs,” Beckerman said. “We’re going to have to be clean with the ball. It doesn’t matter what formation we end up coming out with.”
If it is Wondo who gets the nod, he will have a lucky charm with him on the field. Unbeknownst to him, his jersey was misspelled during the Belize game in which he scored a hat trick. There was an extra ‘w,’ so it read “Wondowlowski.” Ever since then, he has an extra ‘w’ sewn or printed inside his jersey for good luck.
The U.S. team is seeking another ‘W’ as well — a win over Portugal. Will Wondo score? Will Ice Man? Or someone else? Klinsmann wasn’t offering any clues: “We want to keep Portugal guessing a little.”