Death, taxes, and Jozy Altidore's hamstring giving out with a major tournament on the horizon. This is reality for the United States Men's National Team because somebody somewhere decided that we can't have nice things.
While this is obviously a blow to the team and will likely alter their style of play at this tournament, it's not quite the disaster scenario that Jurgen Klinsmann and his men experienced after Jozy blew out his hammy twenty minutes into the first group stage game at the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Jurgen didn't bring a back-up for Jozy then, but he managed to this time, even if it was accidental.
It's no secret that Klinsmann sees Gyasi Zardes as a winger. He's been utilized there for the majority of his time in a USA kit, much to the chagrin of those who see him as a center forward. As everybody knows, Jurgen Klinsmann absolutely loves to play players in positions that don't necessarily suit them, so this should not come as a surprise. However, Gyasi started this season as a winger under Bruce Arena as well.
Through the first few games of the season, when Giovani Dos Santos and Robbie Keane were paired as forwards, the LA Galaxy attack didn't quite click as well as it should have outside of the opener against D.C. United.
Through their first five games of the season, the Galaxy scored just eight goals. Then Robbie Keane went down injured, Bruce Arena moved Gyasi to the #9 spot, and the team has been on a goal scoring tear ever since. They've scored sixteen goals in their last five games, including two 4-goal outbursts and a 5-2 drubbing of Real Salt Lake.
Gyasi has benefited from this move almost as heavily as the Galaxy have, scoring two goals and adding four assists over that five game stretch. He looks comfortable, confident, and--believe it or not--his first touch is looking better, too!
If Jurgen Klinsmann is serious about the Copa America, he'll be taking note of these performances and utilize Zardes as a center forward. With Jozy Altidore officially out of the picture, the United States have no other options on the roster to provide the physical release valve that they so desperately missed during the World Cup and the majority of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Jordan Morris, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, and Chris Wondolowski are all players who provide plenty of value to the USMNT, but none of them fill the role that Gyasi can.
If you've watched the United States Men's National Team over the past two or three years, you've undoubtedly noticed two enduring realities. One is that a dedicated defensive midfielder (ala Kyle Beckerman) is necessary for any sort of midfield stability to be achieved. The second is that they often find it impossible to convert that stability into meaningful possession and attacking play without a strong, physically gifted center forward acting as a release valve when they're under pressure in their own half.
Watch this goal scored by Gio Dos Santos against Sporting Kansas City. It starts with Gyasi receiving a pass from a defender under pressure and using his speed on the ball to create space for himself in the center of the field. Then, he finds a streaking GDS and delivers a ball on a platter. Zardes does amazing work to set up a textbook counterattack, and Gio finishes it off with class.
While Altidore creates space with his strength and ability to hold off defenders with his body, Zardes does the same for himself and others with his speed and vision on the ball. When he's positioned in the center of the field, he has the ability to find and exploit available space, as well as deliver an end product in the form of passing and finishing. When deployed on the wing, Gyasi doesn't quite deliver the same kind of dynamism. It's clear that he's not comfortable from a wide starting point, and that his tactical and spatial awareness as a center forward doesn't translate to a wing role. He just doesn't see the game as a winger, and that's fine. Not many players can play multiple positions at a high level, especially when their main role is as a center forward, one of the most instinct-reliant and specialized positions on the field.
What he excels at is finding the ball, laying it off under pressure, and using the space he's created to make runs through the center channel. When that pressure isn't immediately there, those layoffs become him turning and running with the ball into space, where his dribbling ability makes him dangerous. Real Salt Lake learned that the hard way.
This Summer, the USMNT absolutely need the type of physically gifted center forward they just lost in Jozy Altidore. Games will be played in hot weather against relentless opposition and high-quality attacking play, especially if the US make it out of the group stage. Against teams like Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, the United States absolutely cannot afford to take their chances playing defense for 85 or 90 minutes and rely on set pieces to nick goals. They need midfield stability and they need a release valve. Gyasi can't provide either of those things as a wide midfielder or a winger, but he can create both as a center forward.
For the first time in a while in a major tournament under Klinsmann, there are some real, dangerous wingers on this United States Copa America roster. Players like Dortmund starlet Christian Pulisic, Crew SC star Ethan Finlay, Graham Zusi, and even Bobby Wood have proven that they're capable of creating offense from wide positions. If they're allowed to do their jobs and Gyasi Zardes is allowed to do his, the United States will have the opportunity to do some real damage this Summer.