This past November offered a glimpse of the US national team future – one without both Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. It’s understandable that Jurgen Klinsmann would evaluate other attacking options early in the qualifying cycle, as Dempsey will be 35 by the 2018 World Cup. However, after Donovan retired, Dempsey became and remains the most prolific attacker in the player pool. So, if not from Dempsey, where will the goals come from this cycle?
The US needs an answer soon, as the team depended on Dempsey for goal production this past year. Dempsey accounted for nearly a quarter of the team’s output with 9 goals, and he did so in just 10 caps.
The next destination in the goal search is among other forwards who received a US cap in 2015. Here, I’m defining forwards as those who have the capability to be a front-line attacker, either centrally in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3, or as one of the two attackers in a 4-4-2 variant.
Jozy Altidore, the most established striker after Dempsey, led this group with six goals in 13 games. Bobby Wood also had a good goal return, with four goals in nine caps. Gyasi Zardes scored two goals in a team-leading 19 appearances, but he spent roughly half of that time operating as deep as midfield in a 4-4-2 (tough to score when defending your own 18.) Aron Johannsson also scored twice, and Jordan Morris, Chris Wondolowski, and Juan Agudelo each scored once.
Analyzing club form helps determine who deserves more national team opportunities. Here, I’ll utilize Involvement and Contribution to look at the club backgrounds of notable US forwards. The circle size varies based on the number of appearances per club. This captures the difference between full season, half-season, and loan stints; for example, this distinguishes between Dempsey’s brief return to Fulham in 2014 and the rest of his year with Seattle.
The circle color represents Club ELO score, and the darker the color, the stronger the team. As Club ELO score only includes European club teams, I use a placeholder of 1475 for MLS teams, 1550 for Liga MX teams, and 1450 for Liga Ascenso teams (maybe one day CONCACAF rankings and Euro rankings can converge.)
From here, we can isolate individual players and look at their experience. Donovan’s and Dempsey’s importance extended to club and country. Dempsey’s 2011/12 Fulham season and Donovan’s 2012 loan with Everton are in the far upper-right corner of their respective charts, but neither are isolated incidents. Both players had influential roles with their clubs when available.
Conversely, it seems like Altidore’s US production is almost in spite of his club career. The fact that Altidore earned any time with the 2008 Villarreal team – at the time, one of the top 10 teams in the world – is a testament to his talent. However, it wasn’t until his 2012/13 season with AZ that he grew into a key club contributor. Not coincidentally, 2013 was the Summer of Altidore for the national team.
The upper-right cluster of red circles shows why Zardes (like Wondolowski before him) broke through to the national team. It will be interesting to see if he returns to LA for a fourth season. Wood found regular playing time this year with Union Berlin, and hopefully builds on that performance the rest of the season. Similarly, Wooten’s trajectory looks positive at Sandhausen. Johannsson and Agudelo have the talent, but a larger role with the US is contingent upon their health and club consistency. Rubin is out hurt, and Morris obviously needs to start his pro career.
There isn’t a flagrant omission among fringe forwards. Players like Will Bruin and Jack McInerney have had a good season in the past few years, but haven’t progressed beyond that point like Zardes did. Hopefully Terrence Boyd returns to full health, but that’s the first step before a national team return. A wild card could be Dom Dwyer (pending citizenship), who played a key role for Kansas City the past two seasons.
There’s always a chance that an unknown forward emerges before 2018. However, most of the recent U-23 and U-20 players are earning few minutes or playing with reserves. Among that group, Bradford Jamieson IV is an intriguing candidate, as his involvement score of 72% is the highest among the younger forwards (457 minutes in 7 games). However, to enter the national team picture, he’d need to make a jump in 2016 similar to Matt Miazga with New York this past season.
Rather than look for more forwards, the answer to the goal-scoring bind could be rethinking the attack from back to front. Click here for part two, where we’ll look at the tactical options to address the absence of Donovan and Dempsey.