The sticky conundrum of America’s second striker

It’s interesting that the U.S. men’s team should be in this curious situation on the eve of this great stage next weekend.

Striker, at one point in the not-too-distant past, was a locked down position. It was a non-issue. In the wake of the Americans’ stunning 2-0 defeat of Spain – which I’ll remind you is still Spain’s only loss in 40+ games – striker appeared to give way to the central midfield and the back line as points of worry. 

Jozy was, at the time, our bruising forward, capable of holding off defenders, most of whom had been draped off his back while his trademark shot rippled the net in a shocking turnaround at the Confederation Cup last summer. Charlie Davies was the perfect complement. Speed and brute strength, a coveted combination up top, was finally a reality, a first in US history, really. And they were young.

Then came the 2009-10 club season. Times have changed.

Jozy capped a mostly disappointing club spell at Hull City with a tragically dumb head butt to send him off on red. He showed sublime creativity at times, but he was equally as dull at other moments. He never earned a spot in the starting XI, and with his loan spell with relegated Hull coming to an end, there’s no telling where he’ll be plying his trade next season. An uncertain future doesn’t necessarily breed a quiet mind.

Davies, of course, got the worse end of the spectrum. Forgetting his epic recovery, which deserves the necessary plaudits, there was little to be done about his exclusion from Bob’s final 23. Sochaux’s snub sealed it, but he was out of competition healing for months. Did anyone expect him to be ready after a few second-half sub appearances in Ligue 1? Don’t think so.

As much as I’d take Charlie over any other forward slated to step into his shoes, having him in SA not at peak fitness is a liability waiting to happen. His speed would undoubtedly be sapped to a degree I don’t think any of us were willing to tolerate. Davies lashed out at Sochaux, but it seemed like public mourning more than real anger. He knew his World Cup dream was hanging in tatters. The fact that it was driven home after such a long road back was almost an inevitability.

This is all overstating the problem a little bit. Jozy isn’t defined by his head butt, and while his form at Hull is somewhat troubling, he’s still the precocious 20-year-old who shocked Spain and the world. His injury in training last week is unfortunate, but I think he’ll be fine. He’s a lock for the XI, and he’s not what this column is about.

However, Davies’ successor is.

In my mind, the decision’s been made a lot easier by the recent spate of friendlies. Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez and Robbie Findley were all in the mix with Brian Ching sitting at home, which brought up matches against the Czechs, the Turks and the Aussies. A 2-1 record later, we’re on a lot steadier ground regarding Jozy’s running partner. All of these players were almost completely unknown quantities on the international stage. Not so anymore.

The surprising dearth of options that have opened up have been a welcome surprise. Now, choosing from them will likely define the Yanks’ World Cup adventure. If Bradley chooses wisely, he’ll take Buddle.

Gomez and Findley have proven useful of late, with both providing sparks. Findley especially has made a case as a late sub with fresh legs and a creative streak a mile wide. But it’s been Buddle who’s been the most pleasant surprise.

I saw something like this coming, and if I’d have made a guess at the starting striker when the final 23 was announced, Buddle would have been No. 1. Putting Dempsey up top was an option, but the Turkey friendly changed everything. Paired up top in the first half last weekend, Dempsey was rudderless, a man without creativity.

Of course, when he moved back in the second half and Findley entered, there was pace, speed and, more importantly, a pair of goals up top. And Dempsey scored one of them – from the outside flank. That made up the minds of America – Dempsey is not the answer.

So the attention turned to, basically, Buddle vs. Findley. The final friendly against Australia, to me anyway, was the backbreaker for Findley. Buddle was brilliant, every bit as pivotal as Davies when his pistons were firing. Buddle brings more than speed. His heady play just adds dimension to everything attack-oriented. The difference in the attacking third when he’s on the field is so noticeable, even the stubborn Bob Bradley had to stand up and take notice.

Buddle, to my discerning mind, is the choice. And Findley, likely to his chagrin, needs to be the first-choice sub for Altidore/Buddle in the event of the unexpected. 

I refuse to acknowledge the small chorus trumpeting some combination up top without Jozy. It makes little sense to begin with, but considering the options behind him, any pairing combining the forwards behind Jozy is suicide. Experience at a place like the WC speaks volumes.

I’m a lot more at ease about our No. 2 striker than I was just a week ago. Of course, it wouldn’t be necessary if Bobbo would abandon his 4-4-2, empty bucket to better fit his personnel, but that’s what we’ve got… round hole, meet square peg. You’ll have a fun time with the US roster this month.

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