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Nov 182013

On Tuesday the US Men’s National team will face off against Austria. It will be their final game before breaking for the winter and re-grouping in January. By that time World Cup qualifying will be complete and we’ll have seen the draw and be fully aware of the group that awaits in Brazil come June.

The US enjoyed a very successful qualifying campaign and finished atop “The Hex” with 22 points and a perfect 5-0-0 record at home. The team appears to be coming together under Jurgen Klinsmann and expectations for the World Cup are high, even if their outlook for the group stage draw seems daunting at this point. We’re starting to get an idea of who will be called upon to start come June’s group stage. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say the starting XI will look something like this…


Evans – Gonzalez – Besler – Beasley

Jones – Bradley

Donovan – Dempsey – E. Johnson


There will always be debate, but this is probably what most Americans would consider the “best XI” based upon the last couple months of qualifying/friendlies. I take issue with several of these spots, but there’s one in particular I want to focus on: that lone striker up top.

Jozy Altidore seems to be the consensus No.1 for this role. He scored four goals in five qualifier starts in 2013 after notching 23 goals during the 2012/13 Eredivisie season in the Netherlands with AZ Alkmaar. However, he has struggled to find the back of the net ever since joining Sunderland over the summer. So far this season he has no goals in league play and just 13 shots total in 10 starts.

Enter Aron Johannsson.

The American-born Icelandic striker joined AZ Alkmaar in January of 2013 and he pretty much became Altidore’s replacement at the Dutch club. Since arriving in the Netherlands, Johannsson has 12 goals in 18 appearances. After earning his first cap with the US in August (after getting approval from FIFA for a one time switch from Iceland) Johannsson tallied his first goal in October’s qualifying finale against Panama. His goal came late in the game proved to be the winner that sank Panama’s hopes and sent Mexico through to a two leg playoff with New Zealand. That is the last impression we have from the US’s last “competitive” game.

Then came last week’s friendly in Scotland. Jozy Altidore started up top and Aron Johannsson eventually came on to play alongside him; a move that Jurgen Klinsmann had to make at some point just to see if the two could co-exist. They did, for the most part, but ultimately the game ended in a 0-0 draw and now here we are heading into Tuesday’s game with Austria.

Altidore still seems to be the consensus No.1, but should that be the case? If you simply look at the numbers, both Altidore and Johannsson have pretty similar payloads. Altidore tore it up at AZ Alkmaar, stayed hot with the US, but has since cooled off at Sunderland. Johannsson has stepped in and matched Altidore’s goal scoring pace at the Dutch club and is now on the board with the US. The two would appear, on paper, to be in a dead heat for that starting striker spot, despite the fact that Altidore is several years older and has more caps with the US.

So how do we separate the two?

The answer to that depends on how you want to view the “problem”. There’s no doubt Altidore is the better athlete, but Johannsson may have more technical ability. Such a “comparison” is at the very center of a debate that still rages on to this day about the best way to develop great American soccer players. Many would have us believe that we need our biggest, strongest, fastest athletes to start playing soccer; big, bruising machines like Altidore who are capable of overpowering defenders. Still some say we need to produce more well-rounded, complete soccer players. We need players who understand the flow of the game. I side with the latter philosophy.

We’ve had much more time to watch Jozy Altidore play than Aron Johannsson, but we can already start to see how the two compare. When Altidore is leading the line, everything seems to slow down and the flow of a given offensive push tends to stall when the ball winds up at his feet. That’s ultimately what people love to rave about his game: “look at how good his “hold up play” is!” And to be fair, there’s value in a player who can play with his back to the goal and distribute to other teammates. But then comes the disclaimer with Jozy: “He needs help.” He requires service from the players around him in order to be successful. And to be fair, every great striker needs such help. Unless your name is Luis Suarez, you’ll have a hard time beating two or three defenders all by yourself and scoring on a regular basis. But at the end of the day, your job as a striker is to create something when your surrounding circumstances are less than ideal. The great ones don’t make excuses; they find ways to score. I have a lot more faith in Johannsson to pull a goal out of his hat when the US is in trouble than Altidore because Johannsson’s game is less reliant upon others.

Aron Johannsson may not be as big or as strong as Altidore, but after only a couple appearances with the US it’s clear he has more technical ability than Altidore. For all the praise Altidore gets as a true “No.9″, his passing ability is average and his first touch continues to let him down at the worst possible moments. He’s so busy chasing the ball as far back as the halfway line, that he forgets to simply be patient and make smart runs in and out of the opposing team’s back line. Johannsson has no such weakness. He is a cerebral player who reads the game well and whose first touch is perhaps his greatest weapon.

Johannsson is several years younger than Altidore, but that shouldn’t stop him from taking the No.1 striker spot between now and June. If he has a good showing in Brazil, there’s no reason he can’t be “the future” at the striker position for the US. Just like Jozy, Aron won’t stay in the Netherlands for long. Someone will pay good money to see if “the Iceman” can get it done at the next level. I think his skill set lends itself to said next level better than Altidore. We’re seeing the real Altidore at Sunderland. His is a game that is too dependent on others. Johannsson can read the game and pick his spots much better than Altidore.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but perhaps we’ll look back on these few months between the World Cup draw and the start of group play as the moment when a new, unexpected goalscorer rose up and seized the title of “No.1 Striker” for the US Men’s National team. It may even be a turning point for American soccer as a whole; to see the more complete soccer player usurp the better athlete.

Time will tell.

Adam Uthe

VP of Content Development for GFT and proud supporter of Columbus Crew (MLS) and Liverpool FC (EPL). @AUtheGFT

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