(Sunday, April 27, 2008) --- Two weeks ago, I watched Fulham's Brian McBride score a wonderful goal against Reading in an English Premier League match and then come within a hairbreadth of a second, a first-time volley in full stride which Reading's American keeper Marcus Hahnemann tipped against the crossbar.
Both the goal and the near goal were the work of a classic striker, a player who lurks near his opponent's box waiting for service or an opportunity and not afraid to take on defenders.
McBride was the United States men's starting striker in the last three World Cups -- in France 1998 (where he scored the only U.S. goal in the competition), in South Korea in 2002 and in Germany in 2006 -- earning 96 caps along the way between 1993 and 2006. He has now retired from international competition and watching him in action for Fulham reinforces both how much the U.S. misses him and the very real lack of traditional strikers coach Bob Bradley faces as he puts together his team for World Cup qualifying, which starts in August.
Essentially since the last World Cup, when Bradley succeeded Bruce Arena, he has been playing without true forwards. From time to time he has played Taylor Twellman or Eddie Johnson or Brian Ching up top. None have really responded to the point where they have grabbed the position by the proverbial throat and said, 'I'm your guy for 2010.' So what has happened is the front-line has been comprised of players, such as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and DaMarcus Beasley -- all midfielders or, at best, withdrawn forwards. None are really comfortable in the role that McBride held under Arena and still does for Fulham.
Think back to the goals the U.S. has scored in international competition over the past two years. Most have been scored from dead-ball situations -- free kicks, penalty kicks or corner kicks. What few goals that have come from the run of play have been scored by midfielders, often running onto through balls out of the back or the midfield.
All this is not necessarily bad. The U.S. has become a defensive-minded team depending on counter-attacks to score, which has had some positive results. Look at the last international friendly in Europe -- the 3-0 defeat of Poland in Krakow.
Against Poland the first two U.S. goals came from defenders, Carlos Bocanegra and Oguchi Onyewu, on dead-ball situations, plus a free kick by Eddie Lewis.
This is not to say there is not some glimmer of hope on the horizon. Many think the answer will be Johnson, who has moved from the Major League Soccer's Kansas City Wizards to Fulham in a multi-million-dollar transfer. But since he arrived in the United Kingdom in January, Johmson has gone from substitute to starter back to substitute to sitting in the stands -- the latter, in part, because of a virus.
But, in his games as a starter, Johnson showed both a lack of technical skill, a timidity and an unwillingness to attack defenders, traits he showed often at Kansas City and when he has worn the U.S. uniform.
To believe the local media, Fulham management now considers Johnson something of a project. It certainly is too soon to write him off. Dempsey has become a much better player in his stint with the Fulham and Johnson will likely pick up some of the technical polish and the self-confidence he seems to lack now.
The answer to who will me the next American striker might well be Jozy Altidore, the MLS New York Red Bulls young front-liner. He scored the second goal in the U.S. 2-2 draw with Mexico in Houston in early February. A week ago, the 18-year old scored a magnificent goal against the New England Revolution. He picked up a pass just over the center line, got into a footrace with two Revs defenders, turned one in circles and outraced the other over almost 40 yards before unleashing a shot into the top of the net that whizzed by Revs goalkeeper Matt Reis.
New Engalnd's Jeff Larentowicz should not be confused with the level of defender the U.S. faces in big international matches. But more than anything, Altidore's effort was a goal of immense promise. Depending on whether he makes a move to a European club when the transfer window opens this summer, Altidore will probably be the U.S. striker at the Summer Olympics in China. That will undoubtedly help push along his development.
It is certainly possible that Twellman or one or another of the forwards who have been in and out of the U.S. lineup over the last 18 months will suddenly emerge as the one. But more and more it is looking like a situation of waiting for Altidore.
In the meantime I have a suggestion for Bob Bradley -- get down on both knees and say 'Pretty please, Brian,' -- that McBride consider coming out of retirement for at least for the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying, thinking of the fun he could have spending some quality time in Havana and Guatemala City.
Robert Wagman is SoccerTimes senior correspondent.
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