In the 23rd minute against Ghana, Jozy Altidore was trying to run past a defender down the left wing when he suddenly pulled up, grabbing his hamstring. Altidore’s absence showed how important he is to the USMNT. Without him, the US had no one to aim long balls towards, no one to hold up possession (a problem compounded by Clint Dempsey’s broken nose and Michael Bradley’s subpar performance). The sort of play where Altidore’s injury occurred did not happen again with Aron Johannsson. It’s not Johannsson’s fault, necessarily, but he plays better alongside a striker like Altidore than instead of him.
As was feared at the time, Altidore won’t be back for at least the remainder of the group stage. The USMNT has no one in its current squad that can replace Altidore’s strength in holding the ball up. Nobody plays the lone striker role like he does. Eddie Johnson and Terrence Boyd were left at home. Against Ghana, this was exposed. Ghana dominated possession and the U.S. never got much going after Altidore’s injury. Playing with a lead did the U.S. few favors, as well. But Portugal poses some different problems than Ghana.
Portugal does its best work on the counter, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani running at defenders. The U.S. does not want to see Damarcus Beasley in a footrace with Portugal’s attack. The answer for the U.S. lies not in booting the ball downfield to a target man, but in clogging the midfield, denying Portugal the space to operate. The diamond can’t accomplish this task; the U.S. needs another midfielder. The addition of Graham Zusi, whose corner kick rescued the USMNT against Ghana, will allow Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman to both play centrally. Jones will now have the assistance of Alejandro Bedoya in helping Beasley, while Zusi, Beckerman and Fabian Johnson will handle what is typically Ronaldo’s territory. Bradley will be tasked with hassling Joao Moutinho and leading any daring charges forward.
Up top, the answer to the question of “what do you do without a suitable striker,” is “play without a striker.” Dempsey is not a striker, but mask or no mask he is one of the best players Jurgen Klinsmann has available, and the USMNT’s leading goal threat at the moment. Dempsey in a false nine role is better than shoehorning Johannson or Chris Wondolowski into the Altidore spot. If the U.S. finds itself down late, there will be time for one of those two.