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Red, White, and Bruised: How Will the U.S. Adjust to Altidore’s Absence?

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It wasn’t often pretty, but Team USA ended their World Cup losing streak against Ghana on Monday evening, thanks to substitute center back John Brooks’ unlikely 86th minute winning header goal off Graham Zusi’s corner kick. The U.S. limps away from the Ghana street fight battered and bloodied (literally), but with the vital three points that pundits have insisted for months is a prerequisite if the U.S. has a chance of advancing from Group G.

The U.S.’ dramatic win is tempered only by the slew of injuries they suffered: defender Matt Besler didn’t play the second half as a precaution because of a hamstring issue, Clint Dempsey likely broke his nose, Alejandro Bedoya left with a limp late in the second half, and most notably, Jozy Altidore’s hamstring strain which may sideline him for the rest of the tournament. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s on-the-fly adjustments worked out against Ghana, but additional changes to the starting 11 may be necessary for the U.S.’ clash against Portugal on Sunday.

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John Brooks worked in a pinch (sliding in at halftime for Matt Besler), and his winning goal certainly can’t be overlooked, but Brooks had some shaky moments trying to withstand the Ghanaian barrage. If Besler isn’t fit to start the match against Portugal, Omar Gonzalez may be the more conservative pick to partner with Geoff Cameron in central defense. Gonzalez has been dealing with his own knee issues however, so if he isn’t completely ready, Brooks will get the nod, as the U.S. has no other center back alternatives.

Alejandro Bedoya has been surprisingly dynamic for the U.S. in the run up to this World Cup and he put in a hard-working shift against Ghana, but if he is unable to start against Portugal, the U.S. has several capable midfield wing options in Graham Zusi, Mix Diskerud, or Brad Davis. If Bedoya’s unavailable, Zusi seems most likely to start with his crossing ability and defensive backtracking know-how.

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As for Dempsey’s apparent broken nose, he won’t get much sympathy from Klinsmann, who told reporters in his post-match press conference that he knows from breaking his own nose “three or four times” that Dempsey will be fine in a few days. Still, the injury seemed distracting to Dempsey who wasn’t the same threat post-injury that he demonstrated with his amazing first-minute goal against Ghana. A U.S. lineup without team captain Dempsey seems unthinkable; indeed, it will take more than a broken nose to keep Dempsey off the pitch.

Perhaps the biggest lineup conundrum for the U.S. then is how to move forward without striker Jozy Altidore. Aron Johansson is an exciting young player, who filled in capably when Altidore left the game, but Dempsey and Johansson were not tuned to the same frequency, and the U.S. doesn’t have another bench option at striker with physical strength comparable to Altidore’s. Certainly, Altidore’s injury makes the Landon Donovan omission all the more glaring. Chris Wondolowski may be a bit of a wildcard selection, but his superb movement and uncanny knack for being in the right spaces at the right time might prove a surprise foil for Portugal’s back line. While he is a very different striker than Altidore, Wondolowski is a pesky go-getter with a track record of scoring when Klinsmann calls on him.

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It was an exciting win for the U.S., but one that definitely came at a price as the match took much more out of the team than is ideal from a World Cup opener. Fans saw a lot of scrappy character in this U.S. side against Ghana, but with the injury setbacks, we’ll really find out what they’re made of when they face a chastised Portuguese team this Sunday.

On a side note, don’t forget to check out my brand new book Dallas ‘Til I Cry:  Learning to Love Major League Soccer which is now available on Amazon.com and on Amazon Europe sites!

Great Scot!

Thoughts on the United States’ 5-1 wallop of Scotland

Saturday night’s international friendly between the U.S. and Scotland in Jacksonville, Florida was one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from a U.S. side.  Seriously.  The peppermint-striped Americans looked nothing like the defensive, lone-striker, mistake-prone teams we’ve suffered with over the years.  Instead, this group was energetic, organized, fast, aggressive, and passing out of their minds!  What is going on here?

The Americans’ shooting and finishing was none too shabby either.  Landon Donovan began the scoring festivities (his first of three!), joined later by a long-distance, half-volley rocket from Michael Bradley, and a header goal by Jermaine Jones.  The U.S. absolutely swarmed Scotland, particularly in transition play where the U.S. had many more options than they usually do.  Michael Bradley was fantastic – I never thought I’d be saying this but he might be the third best American player at the moment behind Clint Dempsey (first) and Donovan (second).  Another standout U.S. midfielder last night was Jose Torres.  I hope Torres continues to get starting nods for the U.S.

The U.S. was defensively firm as well, though Scotland didn’t threaten very much.  Even Scotland’s goal was an own-goal, scored after Kenny Miller headed the ball off U.S. center back Geoff Cameron.  Granted, Scotland doesn’t have the urgency of impending World Cup qualifiers like the U.S. does, but it was still a surprisingly (and pleasingly) dominating all-around performance by the U.S.

The U.S. is in a good place right now personnel-wise.  When is the last time a U.S. coach had this many choices at each position?  The most exciting aspect of last night’s victory was the Americans’ purpose-driven possession.  The U.S. has rarely, if ever, moved the ball so quickly and accurately, with plenty of goals to show for the effort.  Last night’s match was evidence that Jurgen Klinsmann is making his mark on the team as he approaches his first anniversary as U.S. head coach.  It was exactly the kind of offensive performance we hoped he would bring to the table.  This new-look U.S. team will really be put to the test on Wednesday against Brazil in Landover, Maryland.

Speaking of new looks, I was on the fence about those new red/white horizontal striped, Kirk Douglas-in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-inspired home jerseys for the U.S….

But after seeing the jerseys in action last night, I’m slipping on the negative side of the fence.  They just look a little too much like a costume for my taste.  The light-gray numbers don’t work for me – I’d rather seem them in blue.  While I appreciate the nod to the American flag, and while I’d like to see more red incorporated in the U.S. kit (which has traditionally been navy blue-dominant), I think Nike was trying a little too hard with this one.

What do you think of the new U.S. home kit?  Thoughts on the U.S. performance against Scotland?