- - Tuesday, June 17, 2014


They were bruised. They were certainly bloodied. As exultation gave way to realism for the U.S. national team, the thought emerged:

Yes, the Americans triumphed over Ghana on Monday. But at what cost?

While the late heroics of 21-year-old defender John Brooks gave the U.S. a dramatic 2-1 win to open the World Cup, attention quickly turned to what kind of team coach Jurgen Klinsmann will be able to field Sunday against Portugal.

Captain Clint Dempsey suffered a broken nose. Center back Matt Besler came off at halftime with hamstring tightness. Yet those worries take a backseat to the status of striker Jozy Altidore, who exited on a stretcher after just 23 minutes with a left hamstring strain.

Altidore is one of only three or four U.S. players who can truly be considered indispensable. With 23 international goals, his scoring prowess will be missed. And one can argue his physicality is even more critical.

SEE ALSO: World Cup: Jozy Altidore to have hamstring examined Tuesday

Without Altidore’s ability to win balls up top and keep possession, the Americans struggled to string together any kind sustained attack. Ghana enjoyed 62 percent of the possession and outshot the U.S. 21-8. Following Altidore’s injury, the Americans had just two touches inside Ghana’s penalty box (one was Brooks’ goal).

For all of Klinsmann’s efforts to implement a more attractive attacking style, his system still relies heavily on Altidore to do the dirty work when the U.S. has its back against the wall.

“It was a little bit of a shock that Jozy got injured,” Klinsmann told reporters. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”

Exacerbating the problem is Klinsmann choice to not bring a backup target forward to Brazil. Eddie Johnson filled that role at times during World Cup qualifying and last summer’s Gold Cup, but a slow start with D.C. United kept him off the preliminary roster. Terrence Boyd made that initial 30-player squad after scoring 20 goals in Austria this past season, then was cut from the final 23-man roster.

Although Landon Donovan isn’t a true striker, he has played that role in a pinch under Klinsmann. Of course, the coach’s decision to leave the Americans’ all-time leading scorer at home in favor of World Cup debutants Julian Green and Brad Davis takes away that option.

That leaves the U.S. with Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski. The problem? They’re both more comfortable as secondary strikers playing off a target man like Altidore. These aren’t your prototypical center forwards.

Coming off a 26-goal campaign in the Netherlands, Johannsson is a savvy finisher boasting the ability to create his own shot. With two goals in nine international appearances, however, the 23-year-old Icelandic-American is still raw. His quiet performance replacing Altidore on Monday didn’t do much to build confidence.

Wondolowski, on the other hand, is a 32-year-old with 77 goals over the past four and a half MLS seasons. A late bloomer, the opportunistic poacher has scored nine times in his past 12 national team matches. The caveat is most of those goals have been in friendlies, with his only competitive tallies coming against minnows Belize and Cuba.

The truth is the U.S. can’t replace Altidore. But with a win in the bag and Portugal coming off a blowout loss to Germany, the Americans may only need a draw Sunday to ultimately secure passage to the knockout round. There, the unpredictability of one-off matches creates all sorts of possibilities.

To U.S. fans, the result against Ghana was a triumph defined by heart and grit. They can only hope the Americans’ immediate World Cup future wasn’t mortgaged in the process.

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