Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore rapport could benefit Dempsey-less U.S.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Forward partnerships are typically formed on the practice field. Preferences, from a player's favored foot to the runs he likes to make, are noted. Repetition and time are then needed for such knowledge to take hold, though the infrequency of national team matches can make this difficult at international level.
In the case of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, there was work off the field as well.
When Wood was first getting called into the U.S. national team on a consistent basis, he endured some inevitable ups and downs. It was Altidore who reached out to offer emotional support.
"[Altidore] was one of the guys who was always there for me," said Wood prior to Tuesday's practice session. "He always wrote to me after games to tell me what I could do to try to improve. I'll always have respect for him. [That help] is always great. I can't complain."
Altidore has a deep reservoir of advice from which to draw, of course, having ridden the roller coaster that is endemic to the life of a forward. He has endured injuries and drops in form, as well as criticism from coaches and media. He sees in Wood a forward whose career is about to reach escape velocity.
"Bobby is a guy who is just well-rounded," Altidore told reporters on Tuesday. "I think his work rate is fantastic, he's a little bit of a pit bull. He makes it uncomfortable for defenses. It was rough on him in the beginning. I think people were a little harsh on him but now I think you see him starting to grow. He's getting more confident, and he's got a great transfer now at Hamburg, and you see around the group he's just brighter, happier. He's improved a lot and he's going to continue to improve."
Ahead of two World Cup qualifiers -- one in St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday, followed by a home match against Trinidad & Tobago on Sept. 6 -- it seems likely the U.S. will rely on Wood and Altidore at some point over the next week. The absence of Clint Dempsey due to an irregular heartbeat will force something of a rethink in terms of the U.S. attack, a situation compounded by the suspension of Michael Bradley for Friday's game and an ongoing knee injury for Jermaine Jones.
Altidore insisted not much would change -- "Trying to be effective, trying to be dangerous," -- but U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann admitted that he has a bit more planning to do than he normally would if Dempsey was available. He noted that Dempsey's habit of dropping back into midfield left Wood to remain high, occupying the center-backs. When the ball was lost the roles were reversed, with Wood the one to help out defensively. Now the U.S. will have to compensate for that loss in familiarity.
"You put your puzzle together, and it's always important what key elements you have and [Dempsey] has been a key element for us over the last years, over the last 10 years," Klinsmann told ESPN FC. "Then once he's not on the field, you put it together differently. You have a different approach then."
Then he added, "I think we have built some players over the last couple of years and they are ready to step in and get the job done."
Wood is foremost among those, having struggled at 1860 Munich only to break out last year at Union Berlin.
"I think Bobby is an example of a lot of work," said Klinsmann, referring to both player and coach. "Two years ago people said 'Why is he playing that kid? He hasn't played any minutes at 1860 Munich.' Well, if you tell the German national team coach to pull a kid from the second division that isn't even on the bench, they would call you crazy. But our pool of players is just completely different to any team in Europe or South America. We don't have the luxury just to pick the players from Champions League teams."
Now Wood's aforementioned transfer to Hamburg looks promising, especially after he scored on his Bundesliga debut in a 1-1 draw with Freiburg. "It was a really proud moment and something I worked hard for," he said.
Altidore is only just back into the frame after recovering from his latest hamstring injury. When reminded of this he said, "Let's knock on wood somewhere," pun not intended.
"I think now we've pinpointed it," said Altidore about the cause of his hamstring injuries. "The national team has been a really big help for me in that. Hopefully I can stay healthy and if I stay healthy, with my ability, I know I can help the team."
In total, Altidore and Wood have been on the field together in 10 U.S. matches, including the 6-1 win over the Vincy Heat in November, a game in which both players scored. For that reason Wood is confident that he and Altidore will link up well.
"We'll figure it out," he said. "He's a great player and it's not going to be a problem playing with two strikers or whatever we do. We'll just have to come in and adapt and do whatever we can to help the team."
And each other.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.