With a hamstring injury ruling Jozy Altidore out of the USA’s second World Cup group game against Portugal on Sunday, Jurgen Klinsmann’s side are faced with a real dilemma over how to replace the striker’s physical presence in the lineup.
Limping off in the first-half of the spirited 2-1 win over Ghana, Altidore may have been widely derided by Sunderland fans over the past season for managing just one goal in 30 Premier League appearances, but his role with the US remains as influential as ever.
So much so in fact that teammate Chris Wondolowski has compared his absence to that of Portugal losing Cristiano Ronaldo, ahead of their match with the European outfit.
’Jozy’s a special player,’ he stressed, when discussing replacing his fellow striker in the side. ‘It’s like saying, “Hey, go be Cristiano Ronaldo.”
‘You can’t necessarily replace certain aspects, but I think Aron [Johannsson] and I bring different styles, different sets of skills that I think are useful.’
While it’s easy to laugh off Wondolowski’s comments, in the context of the US setup there is some validity to them, as strange as that may sound on the surface.
For Klinsmann’s system, Altidore’s goalscoring is less valuable than his strength and hold-up play up front, with his ability to provide chances to those around him, as the focal point of the attack, unmatched within the squad.
With no like-for-like replacement, the side are going to have to adjust to lining up without a prototypical number nine against Portugal, as veteran Wondolowski and AZ Alkmaar’s Aron Johannsson contend to replace the Sunderland man in the side.
The two may not be built from the same mould as Altidore, but both bring their own qualities to the starting XI against an opponent reeling from a 4-0 defeat at the hands of Germany.
The 2012 MLS MVP, Wondolowski has fought his way onto the US squad over the past year, after his prolific scoring-rate for the San Jose Earthquakes became too hard for Klinsmann to ignore.
The 31-year-old may not stand out physically on the pitch but, like Thomas Muller who put three goals past the Portuguese on Monday, is known for his consistency, exceptional positioning, solid work-rate and flair for finding space between the defenders.
While not a target man by any stretch of the imagination, he fits the bill of what many would call a 'natural goalscorer' and has linked up effectively with the side’s talisman Clint Dempsey in the past.
The man who replaced Altidore in the Ghana game meanwhile, Johannsson, is the current favourite to start on Sunday. Born in Mobile, Alabama to Icelandic parents, before moving back to the country aged three, the 23-year-old only opted to play for the US in June last year and is yet another example of an exciting prospect persuaded to don to the stars and stripes by Klinsmann.
An entirely different striker to his injured compatriot, the AZ frontman relies more on his mobility, speed and technical skills, with 17 Eredivisie goals in 32 games last season demonstrating his prowess in front of goal.
With both options ultimately so unlike Altidore, while also relatively untested on this level, the German manager will likely have to pull off another tactical masterstroke this weekend, but Portugal nevertheless seem ripe for the picking.
With fitness concerns surrounding superstar Ronaldo, as well as starters Fabio Coentrao, Hugo Almeida and Pepe being ruled out due to injuries and suspension respectively, there are many who believe that the USA could well spring a surprise, smashing pre-tournament expectations by sealing a win and a place in the last 16.
Whether it’s Johannsson or Wondolowski who helps play a pivotal role in guiding them there, though, is up to Klinsmann to decide.