Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SAO PAULO — It is widely known by now that Jozy Altidore will miss Sunday’s encounter with Portugal, but just who will replace him is a question that remains unanswered.
Altidore will not be in uniform for the U.S. Men’s National Team’s Group G meeting with Portugal because of a hamstring strain picked up in the 2-1 win vs. Ghana this past Monday. His absence from the starting lineup makes it likely that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann turns to one of Aron Johannsson or Chris Wondolowski for the tilt at Arena Amazonia, but each of the two back-up forwards possesses different qualities that will make for a tough decision.
Klinsmann could opt to go with the 23-year-old Johannsson, as the manager did in the 23rd minute of that Ghana match when he subbed out the injured Altidore. Johannsson is technical player who likes to be on the ball and can run at defenders, but he is not very physical and his hold-up game is lacking.
Wondolowski provides that link-up play as well as a nose for goal and work rate that have drawn rave reviews from Klinsmann in the past, but the veteran forward is not the fastest or most technically-gifted player. There is also a concern from some sections of fans and media about his ability to produce against top-level teams, as the majority of Wondolowski’s nine international goals in 21 caps have come against weaker opposition.
Either way, do not expect either Wondolowski or Johannsson to perfectly fill in the cleats left by physically-gifted and World Cup-experienced Altidore.
“Both of us have different styles than Jozy,” said Johannsson, who has two goals for the U.S. in nine appearances. “If either one of us gets out on the field then we just try to play our game and try to do what the coach wants us to do. If that’s to play like Jozy, then we’ll try to do that and if he wants us to play like we normally play then we’ll try to do that.”
Added the 31-year-old Wondolowski: “Jozy is a special player. It’s like saying, ‘Hey go and be Cristiano Ronaldo.’ You can’t necessarily replace certain aspects of it but I think that both Aron and I bring different styles, different sets of skills that I think are useful and I think that’s what we have to do is incorporate those skills sets and also be able to fit into the gameplan as well.
“Just like Aron said, we’re going to have to do certain things that Jozy did do, and we’re also going to have to be able to incorporate our style as well, so it’s just kind of managing those two things.”
There is the chance that Klinsmann deploys another midfielder in place of Altidore and leaves captain Clint Dempsey up top by his lonesome, but that seems unlikely given that it would require a systematic change from a head coach that has almost always used a target striker in his formations.
For Wondolowski and Johannsson, a start would mean needing to change their mental approaches to the game. The two have been primarily bench options since the start of the U.S.’s camp last month, and the only match either of them – Wondolowski – started in was the 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in the Americans’ first send-off series friendly on May 27.
“Starting, you’re able to kind of feel yourself into the game a little bit and from minute one, everyone’s going from kind of the same mindset,” said Wondolowski of the differences between being used as a starter and reserve. “Coming off the bench, it’s a little bit different. You’re kind of being able to read the game a bit. Sometimes they have a little bit of tired legs, (you have) fresh legs and your game plan then is to change the game.
“You want to bring a spark and bring a little something different that might not have been out there since the start. That’s kind of just the mind frame right there.”
Whoever gets the nod out of the two players will be facing a weakened Portugal back line. Temperamental centerback Pepe is suspended after receiving a red card in Portugal’s surprising 4-0 loss to Germany and left back Fabio Coentrao is out for the remainder of the World Cup with a thigh injury.
The U.S. forwards could be salivating at the thought of facing a Portugal defense that is less than a full-strength, but they are not looking at it in that manner given that all the Portuguese players will be desperate for points so as to try and avoid an early exit.
Instead, Wondolowski and Johannsson are hoping to make their marks in Altidore’s absence.
“I think that we’ve had the same gameplan whether the defenders were in there as well,” said Wondolowski. “I know that those are two big guys that they’ve lost, but I think that our gameplan is still going to be the exact same and we’re just going to out there and try to execute it.”