U.S. attack less dependent on Jozy Altidore than it was a year ago
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- When Jozy Altidore went down with a hamstring injury at last summer's World Cup, the lack of a suitable replacement created a domino effect that was felt throughout the entire U.S. team.
Clint Dempsey was shoehorned into the target forward role; Michael Bradley moved higher up, too. The Americans still advanced in Brazil, but it's impossible to know how much better they might have been with Altidore in the lineup.
Fast forward 13 months to the ongoing Gold Cup, in which the U.S. once again has a conundrum up front without a fully fit Altidore. The Toronto FC man is struggling to regain his form following another hamstring strain and was pulled just 45 ineffective minutes into the Yanks' 1-0, Group A-clinching win over Haiti here on Friday night.
There's still no like-for-like stand-in for Altidore. Yet Jurgen Klinsmann's team is in a better position this time around, thanks to the presence of Aron Johannsson and Gyasi Zardes, who replaced Altidore against the Haitians and made an immediate impact by setting up Dempsey's winner less than two minutes after coming on.
"[Friday night] showed that a guy like Gyasi can come in and do just as good if not better," Altidore said post-match. "That shows the depth we have on the team, and a lot of guys can step up. You see guys like Gyasi, like Aron, who have been waiting and doing everything right, and we see that they can bring something different to the team, something positive that we don't have. It's important to have options."
The insertion of Zardes added an element of danger to the U.S. front line.
"He brings energy," captain Michael Bradley said. "He brings mobility. He's dynamic."
Johannsson, meantime, was at the World Cup and replaced Altidore when he pulled up lame in the first half of the Americans' first game. But he was slowed by an ankle injury and didn't play again at the tournament, after which he required surgery.
Now Johannsson is healthy. And he would've had a goal against the Haitians, if not for an offside call that replays revealed was incorrect.
"Sometimes this happens," said Johannsson, who, like the rest of the squad's European- and Mexican-based players, is still finding his feet after being idle since early June.
"I wish I could count that one -- it's good to score a goal but when it doesn't count, it doesn't count. Hopefully in the next couple games I get some goals."
His team could certainly use them. Despite having six points and a spot in next weekend's quarterfinal in Baltimore, the U.S. hasn't created many chances through two games. Dempsey has all three goals.
Still, there is reason for optimism because of how Zardes is growing into a difference-maker at the international level. After being deployed on the wing in the opener against Honduras, Zardes played higher up the field on Friday. When Johannsson was substituted in the 83rd minute, he led the line -- the same spot he plays for the MLS champion LA Galaxy.
"I love playing up top," he said. "But playing out wide, I love that as well, just trying to be an attacking threat. That's what I'm really trying to accomplish."
What the U.S. wants to do -- besides defend its regional title -- is improve.
Klinsmann has taken a few risks so far: starting inexperienced center-back Ventura Alvarado in the first match, switching out seven starters -- including his entire back four -- in the second. Both Honduras and Haiti pushed the U.S. hard.
"Big compliment, huge compliment to Haiti how they played -- it was a very intense game that could have changed in any second," Klinsmann said. "I think every player now knows how tricky and how difficult these game are." That's not to say he was thrilled with the performance.
"As you saw, there was still stuff that was not so good," he said. "So we keep working on that."
Without Dempsey and keeper Brad Guzan -- who came up with a big save early in the second half to preserve the narrow lead for his side -- who knows where the U.S. would be. Dempsey's quality in front of goal is the main reason that Monday's first-round finale against Panama in Kansas City is inconsequential for the U.S. in terms of the result.
But it's far from meaningless. The Americans will have to be far sharper in the attacking third in the knockout stage, especially with an excellent Costa Rica team potentially looming in the semifinals.
Klinsmann said that he'll continue trying to get Altidore up to speed and insisted that the 25-year-old will be able to make an impact later in the competition. But the manager also made it clear that he'll lean on his other forwards -- a group that also includes World Cup veteran Chris Wondolowski -- too.
"That's what we need from our strikers, we need them to push the other ones," Klinsmann said. "It's good to know that if Jozy is not there yet, we have Aron and Wondo that can get the job done as well, and Gyasi always as an option to put him up front. It's good for us."
It's also a nice change from a year ago.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.