SAN JOSE, Calif. — The current state of the U.S. forward pool might be enough to make most coach's nervous, if not downright petrified, especially ahead of a crucial World Cup qualifier.
Bobby Wood is out with a bad back, Jordan Morris' status is in doubt with an injured ankle and Clint Dempsey only just recently returned from a heart condition that left him sidelined for half a year.
Despite that, U.S. coach Bruce Arena looked confident and relaxed at U.S. training on Tuesday, probably because he knows full well just what Jozy Altidore has done, and can do, in World Cup qualifying.
Altidore has scored 16 goals in World Cup qualifying in his career, having passed Dempsey for the all-time lead last September with his two goals against Trinidad and Tobago. His track record in the hexagonal round of qualifying is even more impressive, having scored nine goals over the course of the past three World Cup qualifying cycles.
"He’s a guy who can make a difference in so many different ways," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "He can, with quality, get us a goal. If it’s a different kind of game, he’s somebody whose physicality and competitiveness makes such a difference, and so we’re going to count on him in a big way on Friday night."
Arena has experience coaching Altidore, having coached him during his first season as a professional back in 2007 with the New York Red Bulls, but Friday will mark Arena's first opportunity to deploy Altidore in a World Cup qualifier. The task of setting up the attack to maximize Altidore's effectiveness became much more difficult after Wood's injury, but Altidore is confident the U.S. still has the offensive firepower to earn a sorely-needed victory on Friday.
"I think Bobby’s been terrific the past 18 months, a guy that’s just really found a way to help us," Altidore said. "That’ll be a bit of a blow, but we’ve got myself, Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey. We have no shortage of options, so we should be able to get the job done.”
Arena has a variety of options to try and set up his attack. Teaming Altidore with Dempsey seems like the obvious choice, but a big question lingers regarding Dempsey's ability to deal with the physical rigors of starting in a World Cup qualifier. Dempsey would have greater defensive responsibilities, and be required to do more pressing while playing in a qualifier that will be played at a much higher physically demanding level than what he has experienced since his return with the Seattle Sounders. That reality is why Arena had stated when he first released the initial U.S. roster for the March qualifiers that he saw Dempsey more as a super-sub option for the March qualifiers, even though Dempsey had already played two 90-minute matches with the Sounders.If Altidore has an influence in Arena's decision, he definitely sounded like he was all for getting Dempsey back in the lineup.
"Clint, I’m so happy he’s back personally," Altidore said. "It’s really fun playing with him. He scores a lot of goals, he opens up a lot of space for people. He’s just a good player to play with."
A healthy Morris would make plenty of sense because of the speed element he brings, which could be critical to helping break down what is expected to be a very defensive-minded Honduras setup, which will likely feature a five-man defense with two defensive midfielders in support.
Arena could also deploy Altidore as a lone forward in some variation of a 4-5-1, though Altidore made it very clear in January that he wasn't a fan of that setup.
"I think it’s no secret, for me I’m better with kind of a partner up there," Altidore said after the U.S. played Serbia to a 0-0 draw in January. "I’m not a huge fan of a 4-3-3. It’s difficult, you need really dynamic guys to be able to play it. We’ll see how it goes."
Arena has a stronger menu of attacking options in midfield for Friday's qualifier than he did in January, with Christian Pulisic in the squad and the MLS contingent much sharper now than it was two months ago during the early part of their preseason. That could make a setup with Altidore as a lone striker more effective, though it could also set up the U.S. for a frustrating night against a Honduran side expected to focus on a defend-and-counter approach.
Working in the U.S. team's favor is being at home, where Altidore has thrived in qualifying. For the Toronto FC man, home qualifiers are an ideal stage to shine, and not just because of the supportive crowd.
“(World Cup qualifiers) are different because I think, especially at home, you’re on the front foot a little bit more," Altidore said. "Obviously when you play away the conditions are different, but playing at home I’m sure we’ll be on the front foot more, and we’ll have more of the ball. It’s on us to try and take the game to them, and create holes and create gaps and try to score some goals."
If the U.S. is going to find some goals on Friday and avoid a disastrous result, Altidore is going to have to play a major role in breaking down the Honduran defense. The pressure will be on the Americans, but the demanding stage that is World Cup qualifying has long been one where Altidore thrives.
“Jozy’s always up for things," Bradley said when asked if Altidore takes his game to a new level in qualifiers. "His track record of what he’s about, whether it’s for the national team, whether it’s for Toronto FC, when big moments come he’s a guy that leaves everything he has on the field for the group."