SAO PAULO (USA TODAY) — Heading into the World Cup, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann all but handed Jozy Altidore the Golden Boot. His praise was effusive, his expectations enormous.
"I think Jozy has a very special World Cup ahead of him, where he can prove a point," Klinsmann said before Altidore strained his left hamstring against Ghana.
As much as Klinsmann and his players now downplay the loss of Altidore for Sunday's game against Portugal, this much is clear: Without their target forward, the Americans lost more than just their bullseye.
No one on the roster can match Altidore's size and strength or his ability to hold the ball to incorporate teammates into the attack. And so Klinsmann must go to plan A, B or Z.
One option is to go with either Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski alongside Clint Dempsey.
Against Ghana, Johannsson replaced Altidore with middling success, largely because of the team's possession struggles. Still, Johannsson has proven he can hold his own against top competition. The 23-year-old forward scored 26 goals for the Dutch club AZ Alkmaar this past season.
Another option would be going with one of the MLS's top goal scorers, Chris Wondolowski, who has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. However Wondolowski has scant experience against international heavyweights.
"Wondo is more a finisher in the box," midfielder Jermaine Jones said before Thursday's training. "Aron is more the guy who's good with ball and does one against one better."
Kyle Beckerman said Wondolowski scores goals out of nothing. "He can score when you think there's no chance and then next thing you know he scores. He's is also a guy that does so much things 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," Beckerman said.
"Johannsson is 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. … We're confident in them. Injuries happen so that's why you bring 23 players."
A more likely scenario is to alter the team's formation from a 4-4-2 to the 4-2-3-1, the formation Klinsmann has used the most. Beckerman and Jones, who shined against Ghana, could play holding midfield roles. Midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, who would replace Altidore, would play out on the wings with Michael Bradley in the middle.
Options C through Z remain anyone's guess, including the possibility of Landon Donovan body snatching Julian Green in the jungle of Manaus.
Though Altidore has not been ruled out for the rest of the tournament, the severity of his injury is unclear, and probably will remain so. However, Altidore isn't expected to be healthy enough for the team's final first-round game vs. Germany on June 26. The U.S. is tied with Germany with three points on top of Group G. Germany plays Ghana on Sunday.
Portugal is also dealing with significant injuries, defender Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida suffered leg injuries against Germany that will keep them out Sunday. In addition, defender Pepe is suspended after being sent off for head-butting Thomas Muller. Star Cristiano Ronaldo has been hobbled with injuries.
Still Taylor Twellman, the ESPN analyst and former U.S. striker, said the Americans loss is more significant. "Obviously it's a huge impact," Twellman said about the loss of Coentrao and Pepe. "Now in saying that, they have quality players to fill in behind. … Jozy Altidore being out is much bigger than Pepe or Coentrão for Portugal if you ask me."
Defender Matt Besler who struggled with hamstring issue against Portugal is cleared to play. Dempsey, who broke his nose, has not decided whether he will wear a protective mask.
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