Form is vital when it comes to the international game. Given the nature of international soccer, chemistry is always tough to come by, and that extra little bit of personal confidence can go a long way. Team cohesion is always great, but there’s always so many moving parts. Sometimes, it’s up to an in-form individual player to make an individual play or make an individual difference.
The U.S. Men’s National Team’s forward pool enters the upcoming set of World Cup qualifiers with form on their side. Jozy Altidore is banging in goals for Toronto FC. Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris have helped lift the Seattle Sounders following a strong Gold Cup. But the key to this upcoming set may by Bobby Wood, who enters USMNT camp healthy and in good form for the first time in quite a while.
Wood was dealing with nagging injuries during his three lone USMNT appearances of the year. He played a part in June’s qualifying results against Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico, but he didn’t look quite himself. In his three games in 2017, Wood has been held goalless with his last USMNT finish coming back in November against Mexico.
After sitting out the Gold Cup, Wood is ready to jump back into the picture and back into a forward pool that features plenty of depth.
“It’s always good to have competition. It brings the level up for each player,” Wood said. “You have to go in and be focused and you can’t take anything for granted.”
“You always feel it,” Wood added. “We have a lot of good forwards here. You can’t take that for granted. You have to showcase what you got, and hopefully the coach gives you the start.”
Wood has certainly made his case to start, especially given his current form with Hamburg. Wood was vital in the club’s escape from relegation last season, as he fired nine goals in all competitions. This season, he already has two with one finish coming in Bundesliga play and another in cup action.
Hamburg, in turn, has benefited. A 1-0 win over Augsburg started the season before a 3-1 win over FC Koln vaulted the club to a second win in as many games.
“It’s only two games. We’re just going to keep it level,” Wood said of his club. “It doesn’t keep you in the league winning two times. We’re still positive, but it’s only six points. We just have to keep doing our thing.
“I think we have a basis of what we like to do, and we’re focusing on the positives of the second half of the season last year and continuing it onto this season.”
Wood could very well be slated to start on Friday night when the USMNT takes on Costa Rica. The key to exposing Los Ticos is spreading the field and pressuring their three-at-the-back system from the opening whistle. If you can get a goal, Costa Rica has to emerge, and if they emerge, they’re exposed.
At the Gold Cup, it took a second half surge from Clint Dempsey to lead the USMNT past a weakened Ticos team. Dempsey provided the assist on the opening goal by Jozy Altidore before curling home a stunning free kick to seal the result.
With Dempsey now being utilized in a super-sub role, he sees Wood as someone who has all of the attributes to make his mark throughout the qualifying run.
“He has more pace than me. He probably covers more distance in a game,” Dempsey said of Wood. “As a physical player, he challenges everything and runs down lost balls. He’s good in front of goal. He’s a player that I see continuing to do well for many years.”
“We just have more depth and more competition,” he added. “I’m not taking anything away from the teams in the past, but I just think, right now, especially in an attacking position, it’s tough to break into. It puts us in a good position moving forward, so I’m looking forward to it.”
Dempsey raises an interesting point. This forward group could be among the deepest in recent memory. There are so many unique skill sets in the mix. There’s Morris’ speed, Wood’s tenacity, Dempsey’s skill, Altidore’s physicality and Chris Wondolowski’s experience. It’s a strong mix.
Bruce Arena has seen some talented forwards in his day. He managed Brian McBride and Clint Mathis back at the 2002 World Cup and he helped bring along a young attacker by the name of Landon Donovan that summer in South Korea. That said, he sees something special in this group, just like he saw back then.
“With regards to our strikers, 2002 was a long time ago,” Arena said. “We had Brian McBride and Clint Mathis, two outstanding players. The goal that Clint scored against South Korea was one of the greatest goals I’ve ever seen, but I like our strikers here. The combination of Wood, Dempsey, Morris and Wondolowski gives us a lot of options.
“They’re very good players and the one thing that gives me so much optimism is that they are all in very good form right now. Whoever we choose over these next couple of games is going to be dangerous. I’m real comfortable with our group of strikers we have here.”
Wood certainly knows about that competition that comes from within group. He’s felt it in Europe and now he feels it with an in-form USMNT. With just four games remaining in World Cup qualifying, the USMNT’s forward pool is in a good place, and Wood is just looking to play his part on the road to Russia.
That begins against Costa Rica, a team that gave Wood and the USMNT a battering back in November. It signaled the end of 2016 on a low, low note. Now, the USMNT will be looking to end 2017 on a high with a World Cup berth, and Wood will almost certainly have a part to play.
”We’ve got to take that loss as a learning session and kind of know you can’t just go out there and play,” Wood said. ”You’ve got to mentally be ready for a very tough Costa Rican team.”