SALVADOR, Brazil -- With the news that Jozy Altidore is available -- technically -- for selection for the U.S. in Tuesday's round-of-16 match against Belgium (4 p.m. ET, ESPN and WatchESPN), the question becomes not just "Will he play?" but "If so, how much?"
It's a scenario that makes the skepticism meter go through the roof. In spite of those doubts, manager Jurgen Klinsmann does have some options, at least in theory. Here's a quick rundown:
1. Start him
At first glance, this seems crazy, well, because it is. A player two weeks removed from a hamstring injury is being asked to start the biggest match of the tournament? But one line of thinking is that the World Cup has entered the knockout stages, and now is the time to take more risks. Besides, while it seems there is no way that Altidore could last 90 minutes, what about 60 minutes, or even a half?
Given how much the Americans have struggled for possession, Altidore's presence would be a huge boost for the U.S. attack. Not only would his holdup play make it easier for the U.S. to play out of their own half, but it would free up Clint Dempsey to exploit the spaces underneath. It would also provide wide players such as Graham Zusi, Alejandro Bedoya and Brad Davis an inviting target for deliveries into the box.
U.S. vs. Belgium: Tuesday, 4 ET (ESPN and WatchESPN)
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- Read: Tim Howard assesses Belgian attack
As with most risks, there is a downside, and in this instance, the negatives are considerable. If Altidore goes down injured, that would force Klinsmann to burn a valuable substitute, giving him fewer tactical options as the game goes on. Assuming for a second that the U.S. survive, Altidore would almost certainly miss the remainder of the tournament. Is it really worth gambling with a player's health?
2. Use Altidore as a substitute
If asking Altidore to play 45 minutes is deemed to be too much, then one alternative is to bring him on for a shorter stint after halftime. Not only would the reduced time lessen the chance of injury, but it might provide him with a foundation to take on a greater role in a quarterfinal. Altidore would also be going up against tired defenders, increasing his chances of having an impact.
Such an approach would give Klinsmann the chance to see how the match plays out before rolling the dice, lessening his risk. If the U.S. are up, there is little to no reason to bring on Altidore. The same is true if Belgium blow out the U.S. Only if the Americans are trailing by a goal would Altidore's services be needed.
The downside once again relates to the possibility of reinjury. If Altidore does see the field and aggravates the hamstring, Klinsmann will be forced to burn a second sub, lessening his tactical options even further than in the first option. In a match that could go 120 minutes, that seems an even bigger gamble to take.
3. Sit him, and enjoy the smokescreen
So what exactly does "available" mean, anyway? Riding the bench, in all probability. During his prematch news conference, Klinsmann admitted he didn't know how much Altidore could play. This would seem to hint that the U.S. manager is engaging in some misdirection, and that Altidore's presence on the bench is just for show.
That would certainly make the most sense, for the team and the player. If the U.S. prevails, the quarterfinals would take place four precious days later in Brasilia, allowing Altidore more time to reach a modicum of fitness. His availability could be revisited then.
All told, this looks like the most likely scenario.