Nobody was happy to see Jozy Altidore clutch at his left hamstring during the first half of the United States' 2-1 win over Ghana on Monday. You had the feeling watching it that it could be a serious injury, one with lasting implications on the player's ability to contribute during the World Cup. Sure enough, Altidore has been ruled out of this Sunday's game against Portugal. At this point, that's all we know for sure. But his replacement, even for one game, will no doubt have a significant role to play.
With that said, without a change in formation, it comes down to one of two players: AZ Alkmaar's Aron Jóhannsson, or the San Jose Earthquakes' Chris Wondolowski. With so much riding on Sunday's match, it's Wondolowski who should get the nod, and not just because of his resemblance to pop singers.
Don't get me wrong, Jóhannsson is a very skilled player. At only 23 years old, he has great upside and should be a mainstay around the Men's National Team for many years. He has good quickness and skill on the ball. But when looking for a like-for-like substitute for Altidore, Wondo is the better choice for a number of reasons.
First off, we have to consider the need for holdup play in the most advanced forward position. Altidore is far and away the most capable player on the US roster when it comes to providing an outlet upfield, and holding the ball long enough for the midfielders to join the play. The US won't get exactly what he brings from either reserve forward. But Wondolowski does this much better than Jóhannsson. We don't always get to see it as much with Wondo, because he plays alongside such talented holdup men as Steven Lenhart and Alan Gordon at club level. But when necessary, he can play with his back to goal and distribute the ball to wide players or central midfielders joining the attack. He has improved a lot with this in the last couple of years in particular. It's something that I have yet to see on a consistent basis from Aron Jóhannssen.
Second, Wondo's presence in and around the box is much more suited to the US team's style of play. Wondolowski has scored a variety of goals for club and country, but he seems to have a reputation for aerial prowess and poachers' goals. With the US attack, the team needs someone to finish off some difficult chances in the area. Wondo can find space in the box like no one else, and latch onto crosses or find the loose ball for a half chance. His instincts are sharp and his movement often stymies even the best defenders. By contrast, Jóhannsson scores most of his goals from quick linkup play off of counterattacks. The US is capable of scoring in this manner, but when it comes down to it and the team needs a goal, they'd rather have a player with better command of the area. That's Wondo.
And we can't ignore the experience factor. Wondolowski has a proven track record of success in both MLS, and more recently, the National Team. Since joining the San Jose Earthquakes midway through the 2009 season, he has 80 goals in just over five full seasons with the club. After going nine games without a goal for the National Team, he now has nine goals in his last 12 matches for the Yanks. Jóhannsson's scoring record at club level has also been quite impressive, notching a goal nearly every other game throughout his career. This past season with AZ Alkmaar was his best yet, as he scored 26 goals in 51 games in all competitions. Still, looking at Wondo's longevity in the American top flight, he has the better track record overall.
The World Cup is a stage that shouldn't bother Wondolowski that much. He has gone through enough adversity in his career that new challenges rarely shake the former MLS MVP. Any concerns about a loss of composure should be dismissed. Wondo is ready to contribute.
There are certainly a few skills that Jóhannsson possesses over Wondolowski. Speed and dribbling ability come to mind immediately. Jóhannsson's quick feet often allow him to create chances that Wondo would not be able to create for himself.
The bottom line is this: with the system that the US Men's National Team employs, Jóhannsson's skills are more suited to the position of second striker, the position that Clint Dempsey currently occupies. I'm actually kind of looking forward to a time when we see Altidore as the high striker and Jóhannsson playing underneath him. That will be a formidable striking pair. But for now, with the current group of players in this World Cup, that isn't the best option. Jurgen Klinsmann should make the right choice on Sunday and start Chris Wondolowski.