US starting forwards pairing still unclear

MLSers Buddle or Findley could get the nod with healthy Altidore

JOHANNESBURG – First the good news: The US did not lose another striker when Jozy Altidore suffered a minor ankle sprain in training last week. The 20-year-old striker says he’s feeling fit and ready to go, helped by two to three treatment sessions a day, and is ready to play against England.

Given Altidore’s success and experience over the past few years, he’ll almost certainly get the nod on the front line. But who will pair with him against a tough English defense in the Americans’ World Cup opener on Saturday? There would seem to be three possibilities:

1) Robbie Findley. The Real Salt Lake speedster has impressed in pre-Cup camp, and has performed better than expected in warm-up games. Against Turkey, he showed he could make the pretty pass, which led to an eventual Altidore goal. Against Australia, his creativity shone through. He seems to have rediscovered the danger streak that had eluded him at the national-team level.

“Each touch he takes on the ball, the way he takes people on now, I think his swagger is a little bit different,” Altidore told reporters at US camp on Thursday. “That’s huge for us because he’s a good outlet for us in long balls over the top. Not just that, but he tracks back and helps us defend, so I think he’s been a real plus.”

Altidore and Findley have experience together on the front line as well, both at the senior- and youth-team levels.

2) Edson Buddle. Has MLS’ leading scorer really gone from his first national team camp in seven years to a possible starting spot in the World Cup in just a month? Yes.

The Galaxy marksman also has impressed in camp, both with his skills and his easygoing personality. And he proved with his brace against Australia last week that his hot foot in league play has indeed translated to the international level.

More importantly, he’s showcasing some of those physical skills that make him an important presence in the box, someone who can fill the role of target man.

“He’s that traditional guy who gets the ball, holds it up and lays it off and he gets in the box,” said Altidore. It’s always good to have a guy like that around. He’s looked really sharp in training.”

Two strikers with size may be a good call if Bob Bradley opts to try to fight England’s muscle with muscle. And despite never working together at the national-team level, Altidore and Buddle do know a bit about each other’s game – they spent the 2006 season together with the New York Red Bulls and shared the front line in three matches.

3) Go it alone. Bradley hasn’t often strayed from a 4-4-2 formation during his tenure in charge of the US, so it’s unlikely he’ll stray on Saturday. But given the opponent, it’s worth a look.

If he decides to go conservative against England, with a focus more on absorbing pressure and waiting for counterattacking opportunity, Bradley could deploy Altidore as the lone forward. That might allow Clint Dempsey to shift to more of a deep striker role and put another skilled midfielder in the mix, perhaps another flank player like Stuart Holden.

MLSsoccer.com managing editor Jonah Freedman is reporting on the World Cup from South Africa all this month.