021914_wondogreenagudelo John Todd/isiphotos.com, Courtesy of Julian Green, Fedor Obmaikin/isiphotos.com
Brazil 2014

Who Will Secure 23rd Spot On U.S. World Cup Roster?

Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, and Eddie Johnson are likely on the squad. So if Jurgen Klinsmann has one more slot for a forward, who is it going to be. Jason Davis shares his thinking.
BY Jason Davis Posted
February 19, 2014
11:45 PM
FIRST OFF, LET'S ALL AGREE that Jurgen Klinsmann is going to do the obvious thing and take four dedicated forwards to the World Cup in Brazil.

He doesn’t have to, you know. Landon Donovan can play up top, roaming off of a target forward, and Clint Dempsey has spent more than a little time manning the front line in a U.S. shirt. Klinsmann has options thanks to his versatile attacking midfielders, and that’s bad news for the fringe forwards hoping to make the flight to the land of the samba.

That aside, Klinsmann has several legitimate options for the fourth forward spot. The candidates include a World Cup veteran; a couple of wunderkinds of immense, but mostly unrealized potential; a maturing target man plying his trade in a second-tier European league; and two prolific MLS scorers. Handicapping the field is a matter of sussing out clues from Klinsmann, determining practical team need, and reviewing recent playing form.

There are six names on the list. We might be better off assigning a player to each number and rolling a die considering how difficult it is to choose between them. We won’t, but it could give us just as much of a chance of being right.

But break it down we shall, starting with the current dual-international It Boy, Julian Green. The Bayern Munich reserve player is the fan favorite based on American Soccer Now’s latest poll (at right; you can vote here), a somewhat surprising development that is a little less so when the recent buzz behind his pending international choice is considered.

Green is hot, in the same way Aron Johannsson once was and John Brooks still might be. His talent is obvious, his pedigree enticing. Green has shown just enough of an interest in playing for the United States that he has us all believing he just needs one more push to declare for the Stars and Stripes.

Green is also talented: Check out this classy finish from Bayern Munich’s winter break, when the 19-year-old scored against Sudanese side Al-Merrikh:

His numbers for Bayern Munich’s reserve side, which plays in Germany’s third division, are staggering. In 18 appearances (13 of them starts), the Tampa-born forward has put the ball in the back of the net 15 times. There isn’t another player in the pool that comes close to that type of goal-scoring return.

The problem? Green is 19 and does not have a first-team Bundesliga appearance for Bayern Munich. He’s all potential. In a non-World Cup year, a call-up based solely on that potential and a Regionalliga resume might be enough (see Boyd, Terrence). Especially if doing so would nudge Green toward choosing the U.S. over Germany, the other country eyeing his services.

But is that really the way Klinsmann wants to use the final forward spot on his World Cup team? No matter how infatuated Klinsmann is with his young countryman (and he clearly is), it doesn’t seem likely. Green is on the radar, but he’s not ready for the 23-man roster. Sorry, voters.

Meanwhile in neighboring Austria, Terrence Boyd’s star is not what it once was. That’s probably unfair to the 23-year-old Rapid Vienna striker, but after his own brief stint as the young German-American of the moment, there was always going to be a cooling down period.

Boyd’s move to Austria for first-team soccer made him less appealing through no fault of his own. He has scored there, too, racking up 21 goals in a season and a half. And yet he made just three U.S. national team appearances in 2013—none of them in a competitive match—and seems like something of a long shot for the World Cup team. In 12 total U.S. appearances, Boyd has yet to score a goal.

Working in Boyd’s favor: As a big, physical forward who can play with his back to the goal, he’s the best analog for Jozy Altidore in the reserve pool. If Klinsmann is married to his one-striker system and needs a replacement for Altidore for some unforeseen reason (say, yellow card accumulation or malaria), Boyd is best suited to step in.

It’s settled: Boyd goes on the short list.

Remember Juan Agudelo? Of course you do, but it’s worth asking the question if only because the 20-year-old bounced in and out of the U.S. national team picture since wowing everyone with his intuitive goal-scoring abilities and athleticism a few years back. After an unsettled period that saw him traded twice within MLS, Agudelo played an important role in New England’s surprise 2013 season. Leveraging his talent for a move abroad (his long-stated goal), Agudelo is now in the Netherlands with FC Utrecht.

Early returns from the Eredivisie are good, and Agudelo has some World Cup heat growing beneath his feet. The reasons are obvious: Agudelo is among the most creative strikers in the pool, capable of both scoring astounding goals and setting up his teammates with clever play.

Speaking of astounding….

...that’s why Agudelo can’t be discounted as a candidate for Brazil. He’s gifted and can pull a goal from nowhere using his hefty back of tricks. As a late-game sub, he can be extremely useful. As long as Agudelo remains in Utrecht’s starting lineup and is playing well, he too is on the short list.

As recently as a year ago, Herculez Gomez was a legitimate contender to make his second World Cup team in 2014. But injuries halted Gomez’s scoring exploits in Mexico at the exact same time that other options started to emerge from north of the border. Even if Gomez wasn’t competing with a revitalized Agudelo, his spot on the roster would be jeopardized by Chris Wondolowski and Mike Magee.

Gomez can score, though he hasn’t yet found the net for his newest club, Tijuana. His work-rate is top notch. He makes smart runs in the six-yard box and can stretch opposing defenses by drifting into wide positions. But he’s 31, not in form, and appears to have slowed down just enough to affect a game that relies more on smarts than physical gifts. Let’s cross Herc off the list—with resignation.

That brings us to the two MLSers in the mix, lumped together both for brevity’s sake and because their provenance makes them easy to compare.

After a long wait, Wondolowski finally got his shot in the national team setup under Jurgen Klinsmann and then pounced on the opportunity with a strong run of goals in the 2013 Gold Cup. Unfortunately for Wondo, his goals came against competition that leaves open the question of his international credentials. (This includes a pair of tallies he netted against South Korea in the recent January friendly, though the recency of the brace certainly helps Wondo’s World Cup cause.)

Wondolowski’s greatest strength is his movement. No MLS forward is better at finding crevices between defenders or making post runs. For that reason, the Earthquakes forward is extremely consistent, even if his goal-scoring touch sometimes goes missing.

When Wondo is confident, he scores. Again, it’s difficult to know if his style—which is heavily dependent on service and rebound chances—can translate to a level above MLS and weak CONCACAF opposition. The jury remains out, and thus his place in the World Cup discussion remains unclear. We’ll include Wondolowski in the shortlist because Klinsmann seems intent on including him whenever possible and because Wondo has a “knack” for scoring that can’t be taught.

Meanwhile, reigning MLS MVP Mike Magee built his national team case by scoring in every conceivable way in 2013—knocking in 21 total goals for the Los Angeles Galaxy and the Chicago Fire. Magee’s instincts are excellent, as evidenced by his penchant for turning volleys and half-chances into goals. Strong enough on the ball to create his own shot, Magee is something different than Wondo’s “fox in the box” act. He can score from beyond the penalty area and is crafty enough to slip defenders and pop up on the back post for easy tap-ins.

Wondolowski is a poacher. Magee is a finisher.

But Magee is late to the party and missed his chance to impress against South Korea thanks to a poorly timed bout of food poisoning. Klinsmann refuses to close the door on anyone at this point, but it’s hard to imagine Magee can overtake players who have actual national team game experience. Maybe Magee will get a chance against Mexico in the upcoming April friendly. Or maybe Klinsmann will have already made his choice by then. The best approach is to leave Magee out, if only because “crowd favorite” doesn’t cut it as a reason to put him in.

SO NOW THE SHORTLIST looks like this: Terrence Boyd, Juan Agudelo, and Chris Wondolowski. Eliminating three names makes rolling a die impossible, so it’s now down to which player can best help the squad from a reserve role. (Remember, U.S. strikers failed to score a single goal in the 2010 World Cup. )

Or perhaps question is best crystallized as this: Assuming the three strikers we all think will be there (Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, and Eddie Johnson) stay healthy for the duration of the United States’ time in Brazil, which of the shortlisted three is best suited to change a game when the Americans need a goal?

Terrence Boyd, talented young player with plenty of power but questionable finishing ability?

Juan Agudelo, the freewheeling prodigy with a spark of genius but a lingering reputation for drifting out of games?

Chris Wondolowski, a prolific scorer in MLS whose ability to do it against better defenders remains in doubt?

If the question is about changing the game with a late sub down a goal with World Cup survival on the line, there’s really only one answer.

It’s not Boyd, and it’s not Wondolowski. It’s Juan Agudelo.

If you need convincing, there’s always this:

And whether you agree or disagree, we want to hear your take in the Comments section below.

Jason Davis is a soccer-besotted podcast host for NASN.tv and writer for outlets like ESPNFC and USSoccerPlayers.com. He appreciates the long ball and enjoys annoying people on Twitter.

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