U.S. forward spots up for grabs
Hull's Jozy Altidore is the only U.S. forward guaranteed a World Cup roster spot
The roster situation changes considerably if Charlie Davies recovers from accident
Puebla's Herculez Gomez could be a viable option because of his form in Mexico
The age-old adage in professional soccer is that "form is temporary, class is permanent," a refrain that's certainly appropriate when discussing which players should receive a World Cup call-up for their respective national teams.
It's especially fitting in the case of Fulham's Bobby Zamora, a previously woeful hit man who had specialized in gathering his own personal collection of horrendous misses. However, this season, Zamora has been a different player, scoring goals in every conceivable fashion. The result is that England manager Fabio Capello is left with the dilemma of deciding whether this transformation is genuine or just a temporary, albeit extended, hot streak.
In similar fashion, U.S. coach Bob Bradley has decisions to make regarding his striker pool for South Africa, especially given the uncertain status of Charlie Davies. That Davies is still even in the conversation following last October's horrendous car crash is nothing short of remarkable. Davies is back in training in France and expected to take the field sometime in the next month. However, if we assume for now that he still won't be match fit come the World Cup, the question remains as to who will replace him.
Other than Hull's Jozy Altidore and possibly Brian Ching, no forward is a lock to be named to the roster. There's no question that Davies' pace is a key component for the U.S. In fact, Davies' bending runs behind Spain's fullbacks in last summer's Confederations Cup semifinals were crucial in the U.S. team's victory. Davies' presence caused Sergio Ramos to hold back his runs, leaving the Spanish with diluted flank support and a very narrow shape.
Of those who are assured of a place on the U.S. roster, only Landon Donovan can replicate Davies' pace, but playing him up front would take him away from the wide midfield role in which he has excelled in the last year. As for the other striker candidates, most remain unproven internationally and all have been streaky, leaving Bradley to wonder if he actually does have any adequate replacements. Here's a look at the primary contenders in no particular order, with their respective pros and cons:
Brian Ching, Houston: The veteran MLS striker is the only candidate with a proven track record. He's a classic target man who grinds, does the dirty work and is capable of providing link play. The downside is that he hasn't shown he can score with any frequency at the international level. Although he's not a lock, he's very likely to be named to Bradley's squad unless his recovery from a hamstring injury proves more problematic than expected.
Conor Casey, Colorado: The jury remains out on the Rapids' Casey. Despite his physical presence, he's starting to appear to be the equivalent of the flat-track bully who scores with abandon against subpar domestic defenses but struggles against international opposition. To compound the situation, he's seemed strangely lackadaisical this season and has struggled in MLS. The problem is that Casey doesn't offer the work rate of Ching, so if he's not scoring, he doesn't add a whole lot of value. At this point, he's a question mark for South Africa.
Robbie Findley, RSL: With his speed and productivity in 2009, Findley would seem to be a natural candidate to replace Davies. However, in a couple of appearances this year with the U.S., against El Salvador in February and the Netherlands in March, Findley looked overmatched and out of his depth. He might yet improve, but the World Cup stage is probably not the place for Bradley to take that gamble.
Eddie Johnson, Aris: Another player who has the physical tools to replace Davies. But Johnson has been a huge letdown for a couple of years, failing to cut it both at the club level in Europe and in various disappointing appearances for the national team. Granted, he's played more at Aris after riding the pine at Fulham, but he's still not exactly tearing it up in Greece and hasn't really added any new facets to his skill set to get overly excited about.
Kenny Cooper, Plymouth: Cooper's prolific goal tally while in MLS for FC Dallas garnered him cult fan favorite status for a national team call-up. However, the suspicion has long been that the U.S. coaching staff regards Cooper as somewhat of a tweener -- a big man who has the technique of a smaller man but without the pace, coupled with an inability to play as a physical target man despite his size. Cooper moved to Europe last summer in a bid to improve his national team prospects, but has seen his playing time marginalized and his World Cup hopes all but fade. After all, if he can't start at Championship side Plymouth, which is managed by someone familiar with his ability (former Revs assistant coach Paul Mariner), does he really deserve a spot on the U.S. World Cup squad?
Herculez Gomez, Puebla: Gomez, the final prime candidate, has several things going for him. First, unlike most of the others on this list, he's in fine form (eight goals in his last 11 games) and is a real threat to finish as the Mexican league's leading scorer. Second, he showed in the past (while with the Galaxy) that he can score when deployed as a striker (18 goals total in the 2005 season) -- before being strangely utilized as a midfielder in the latter part of his Galaxy career and at stops with Colorado and Kansas City. Third, Gomez provides a speed dimension, along with an ability to shoot effectively from range -- something that's also lacking in the U.S. pool. He's also willing to be direct and run at defenders, welcome traits for any forward. Finally, Gomez has improved his tactical awareness and sense of positioning in the final third during his time in Mexico.
Edson Buddle, Los Angeles: Buddle certainly has had a checkered career in MLS replete with off-field issues, injuries and patchy form. However, with the Galaxy the last couple of years, Buddle has found his comfort zone and prospered. In addition, his work ethic and fitness levels have improved, as has his game intelligence, and he's started this season with five goals in three games. But it's doubtful that Buddle would be a suitable replacement for Davies. Stylistically, he's a lot closer to Altidore than he is to Davies -- although he could certainly merit selection as Altidore's backup. But the real question is whether he and Altidore would be an effective starting tandem. The shame is that the last two years have come and gone without Bradley taking a more extensive look at either Buddle or Gomez at the international level -- it would have made more sense than Bradley calling up the likes of Josh Wolff (as he did for the England friendly in May 2008).
From my perspective, if Davies isn't fit (and if I'm Bradley, I would give him right until the last-minute roster deadline to prove his fitness), then the only two strikers I'd take to South Africa from the list above would be Ching and Gomez. Ching, as the obligatory target-man option, is a given. As for Gomez, I'm by no means sold on him -- and Buddle would be tempting -- but Gomez provides pace, is in form and has proved he can score outside of MLS.
Although it's the norm for most World Cup squads to include four strikers, the U.S. has the luxury of using midfielders Donovan and Clint Dempsey to cover at the forward spot. That being the case, the U.S. is best served taking only three recognized forwards in Altidore, Gomez and Ching, and using that fourth forward spot to add another creative midfielder and wild-card talent such as Alejandro Bedoya, or other flair players in that mold.