Opportunity Knocks

SÃO PAULO - Aron Jóhannsson and Chris Wondolowski sat on the sideline as Jozy Altidore sprinted just in front of them, pulling up as he passed the midfield stripe and falling to the ground clutching his left hamstring. The injury looked painful almost immediately. Soon, Jóhannsson’s number was called, and the American striker made his first World Cup appearance as an injury replacement for a player whose skill set, at least on the U.S. Men’s National Team, is irreplaceable.

Chances are either Jóhannsson or Wondolowski will be inside white lines when the USA kicks off against Portugal on Sunday in Manaus. But which will it be, and how will the chosen striker adapt?

“Both of us have different styles than Jozy,” Jóhannsson told reporters at the team’s final training session before departing for the Amazonian city of Manaus on Friday. “If either one of us gets on the field then we just try to play our game and try to do what the coach wants us to do. If that’s to play like Jozy, then we’ll try to do that and if he wants us to play like we normally play then we’ll try to do that.”

In all likelihood, it’ll be somewhere in between those. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has spoken repeatedly in the past about the need for players to step up and fill well-defined roles within the squad, but the coach has also spoken equally often on the need for players to feel comfortable expressing themselves and displaying their individuality on the field.

So while Altidore’s physical presence and back-to-goal play may be without an equal among U.S. attackers in Brazil, both Wondolowski and Jóhannsson offer different skill sets that could be just as effective if utilized well. 

“You can’t necessarily replace certain aspects of [Jozy’s play], but I think that both Aron and I bring different styles, different sets of skills that I think are useful,” Wondolowski said. “I think what we have to do is incorporate those skills sets and be able to fit into the game plan as well.”

That adaptation process could be key. Especially when one considers that neither player has had to adjust to coming off the bench a whole lot in their club games lately.

Wondolowski has been the offensive focal point for his San Jose Earthquakes for the better part of the last four seasons. His tireless energy and never-say-die attitude has lifted his teammates’ levels, resulting in numerous last-second and come-from-behind victories.

Jóhannsson may be seven years younger than Wondolowski, but has also become an everyday source of goals for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie. Jóhannsson possesses a deft touch and strong instincts in front of goal – qualities that propelled him into the top three scorers in the league last season.

“When you’re starting, you’re able to kind of feel yourself into the game a little bit and from minute one, everyone’s going from kind of the same mindset,” Wondolowski said. “[As a sub], you’re fresh legs and your game plan then is to change the game. You want to bring a spark and bring a little of something different that might not have been out there since the start.”

However, what makes Wondolowski and Jóhansson different might end up making one the perfect choice to start against Portugal. Ultimately, that decision lies with Klinsmann.

“Whenever he’s ready to let us know who’s going to start, then he’ll do it,” Jóhannsson said. “We just have to wait until he makes his decision.”