USA coach Bob Bradley faces a potential crisis in attack ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Livewire Charlie Davies is likely to miss out through injury, leaving the 51-year-old with a gaping hole to fill up front.
Jozy Altidore was Bradley’s first choice in the striker position at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009. The burly youngster started the team’s first two games, a pair of heavy losses to Italy and Brazil. Only in the States’ third outing did the coach opt to roll the dice, bringing on the untested Davies, then based at Swedish outfit Hammarby.
With the speed merchant having played exactly 13 minutes for the US Olympic team at Beijing 2008, the decision was born of desperation. However, USA needed at least three clear goals against African champions Egypt to keep alive hopes of moving on to the knockout stage, and it was time to man the torpedoes and add a second man to their frontline.
The bold move proved inspired. Davies's movement, pace and workrate caused havoc alongside the physical presence of Altidore, and the Americans sprang to life. The creative Landon Donovan and rangy Clint Dempsey were able to drop back and wide, and focus their attentions on service.
Davies scored in the 3-0 win over Egypt, before joining forces with Altidore again in the semi-finals, where he helped inflict a 2-0 defeat upon Spain, the European champions and side top of the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, in an upset for the ages. USA had no answer for Brazil in the final, losing out 3-2 after holding a two-goal lead at the interval. Despite the loss, the Americans had earned respect on the world stage and, more importantly, Bradley had assembled a formation that was working, with an attack in the mood for goals.
Davies’s star was on the rise and he ditched Scandinavia for France shortly after his heroics in South Africa, moving to Ligue 1 side Sochaux. Sadly, though, he was involved in a serious car crash while on international duty in Washington DC in October. He was lucky to escape with his life, but his hopes of a place in South Africa were left in tatters with two broken bones in his leg, a dislocated elbow, multiple facial injuries, a ruptured bladder and bleeding on the brain. He still harbours hopes of making the USA sqaud, but the outlook is not positive for the 23-year-old workhorse.
I've been around long enough to know what the coaches want, and I can put a hand on some of the younger guys' shoulders and encourage them when they need it.
As Davies bravely grinds his way back to fitness in France, Bradley is left with the same dilemma he faced two games into last year's FIFA Confederations Cup: Who should partner Altidore? There are four MLS-based options currently leading the running in Brian Ching, Conor Casey, Jeff Cunningham and, to a lesser extent, young Robbie Findley.
Brian Ching, 31, a Hawaii-born veteran with 11 goals in 44 caps, couldn’t be less like the sparkplug Davies. Chosen to lead an experimental and youthful side at last year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the target man – left out of the team that had all the joy in South Africa and an unused substitute at Germany 2006 – is a prototypical centre-forward, with great heading ability and a poacher’s instincts.
While Davies is precocious and exuberant, Ching has seen and done it all. “I've been around long enough to know what the coaches want, and I can put a hand on some of the younger guys' shoulders and encourage them when they need it,” he told FIFA.com during the Gold Cup, where USA came up short, routed 5-0 by Mexico in the final in New Jersey.
Also a threat in the air is Conor Casey, in and out of the side since making waves as a teenager at the Sydney Olympic Games of 2000. Built more like a rugby player than a footballer, the beefy 28-year-old scored two crucial goals against Honduras in the closing stages of qualifying for this year’s world finals, but the Colorado Rapids man was inconsistent in his performances.
Then there is Jeff Cunningham. The closest to Davies in terms of on-pitch style, the 33-year-old Jamaica-born man is blessed with pace and has been improving his consistency in front of goal, scoring 17 goals in 23 starts for club side FC Dallas last term. Young Robbie Findley, at just 24 years old, is also a possible option for Bradley. The speedy Real Salt Lake ace scored 12 times in the side’s fairytale run to the Major League Soccer 2010 crown, turning on the form late in the season.
Ching will have done his chances no harm with a goal and an assist in a come-from-behind 2-1 win over El Salvador in Florida on Wednesday, the Americans’ first friendly victory in four tries. Although Bradley has options to shuffle his pack, with the likes of Donovan, Dempsey or even out-of-favour Rangers winger DaMarcus Beasley and young gun Stuart Holden available as possible solutions, the coach knows all too well the benefits of having two dedicated forwards on the pitch. To that end, he still has the much-travelled former prodigy Freddy Adu, Eddie Johnson and Kenny Cooper as possible deputies as well.
With only the Netherlands, Czech Republic and Turkey friendlies remaining before they open against world powers England in Rustenburg – site of the famous turning-point win over Egypt last year - Bradley is in need of a solution.