STANFORD, Calif. — It’s been 12 years since an American forward scored in a World Cup.
Brian McBride’s go-ahead goal against Mexico during a 2002 second-round match in South Korea helped the Americans advance to the quarterfinals in their best showing since 1930. The U.S. has eight goals since then, seven by midfielders Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, plus an own-goal against Italy.
“I didn’t realize that,” San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski, trying to earn a roster spot as a reserve striker, said before a training session Sunday. “If a forward scores, we’ll be happy. If a defender scores a hat trick, we’ll be just as happy.”
As the Americans prepare for next month’s tournament in Brazil, pressure for goals will be on Jozy Altidore and Dempsey, who gradually has shifted to striker during the current four-year cycle.
Altidore has 21 goals for the U.S. and last summer became the first American to score in five straight international matches. But he struggled in his first season with Sunderland in the Premier League, getting just two goals in 38 games.
It mirrored his slump four years ago, when he had only two goals in 30 matches during a one-season loan to Hull. As a 20-year-old, he started all four American matches at the 2010 World Cup, and he didn’t start to break out until he signed with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. He scored 20 goals in 2011-12 and added 31 the following season, setting a record for an American with a European club.
That earned him a big-money transfer to the Premier League. And then came another drought.
“Same guy I was before. Just believe the reason why you’re there, how you got there,” he said. “We have guys in abundance that can get the job done. I think we’ll be fine. The most important thing we have to get ready for is to be able to be a team that’s hard to beat, because we’re going to be playing a lot of talent.”
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped Altidore from a pair of semifinal round qualifiers in October 2012 after a troublesome May-June camp followed by a poor match against Jamaica. Klinsmann challenged Altidore, knowing he could “do much, much better.”
But, at least publicly, Klinsmann says now he is unconcerned about the lack of goals.
“Still, we see Jozy in his development phase,” he said last week. “Jozy is not built yet. Jozy has not reached his potential yet. Our job, as coaches, is to help him reach his highest potential. I think the next two months will be a big part of that next learning curve for Jozy Altidore. I’ve always said that he has upside. He hasn’t shown it yet in different places, maybe.”
Dempsey, 31, replaced Carlos Bocanegra as the American captain last year. His profile rose while at Fulham in England from 2006-12, when he scored 60 goals for the Cottagers, including 23 during his final season.
Dempsey moved to Tottenham but lasted just one season at White Hart Lane. Then he made the surprising move back to Major League Soccer last summer, signing a big-money deal with the Seattle Sounders that guarantees him nearly $6.7 million this year, including a prorated share of bonuses not attributable to a specific season.
While he didn’t score in seven matches during a winter loan back to Fulham, he has eight goals in six games with the Sounders in 2014.
“I’m in a good run of form. Feeling confident and in a good rhythm,” he said.
Placement on the field matters only so much.
“If you looked at the position that I’ve played over the World Cup qualifiers, you’d say most of the time I was playing more of a withdrawn forward, which is a little bit of both,” Dempsey said. “I’ve played wide left, played wide right, played centrally, played withdrawn forward, played the target striker. Any position that I can be in the attacking third, create chances for others and for myself, that’s what I enjoy doing.”
Landon Donovan, the American career leader with 57 international goals, has had an opposite run, scoreless in seven games this year for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Now 32, he is viewed by Klinsmann as a forward and didn’t start last month’s exhibition against Mexico because of left knee soreness that hindered him during training.
A pair of 23-year-olds also are competing for roster spots: Terrence Boyd scored 20 goals in for Rapid Vienna this season and Aron Johannsson had 26 for AZ. And there is the 31-year-old Wondolowski, who led or tied for the MLS scoring lead each year from 2010-12 but didn’t appear in any World Cup qualifiers.
“We’d like to double the positions or even triple them if possible,” Klinsmann said. “Obviously Jozy is a big part of our group and he gives us a lot of hopes for this summer’s World Cup. But if something, God forbid, happens to Jozy or whoever, then I need to have a backup.”
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