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More than two weeks and three tune-up friendlies remain until the United States men's national team kicks off its 2016 Copa America Centenario against Colombia in Santa Clara, Calif. Yet the Yanks' campaign to prove themselves anew, after a difficult two years since the 2014 World Cup, is already troubled.
Increasingly brittle striker Jozy Altidore has injured his hamstring once again and will miss the tournament entirely. That's the same injury that cut short the 26-year-old's World Cup in just the 23rd minute of the U.S.'s opener against Ghana, by the way. Oh, and his 2011 Gold Cup and 2015 Gold Cup. Nobody seems to know exactly why he keeps getting the same injury.
And here's where U.S. fans' feelings grow muddled.
Altidore has a legion of detractors. He's mercurial and prone to long stretches of utterly anonymous games. He can be maddeningly ineffectual, and his promise has always outpaced his actual performances.
But then he's also kind of crucial to the team. His skillset, limited though it may be, is irreplaceable. Jurgen Klinsmann simply has no other target man at his disposal, or not one he's willing to entertain as a full national teamer anyway. Altidore's ability to hold up the play and get others involved, or to allow a deep-lying forward or playmaker to combine with him, is unmatched within the player pool.
Nobody else can really do that. We found that out quickly in Brazil, where Aron Johannsson – who is currently injured anyway – withered quickly in that role and Clint Dempsey tried his hardest but was mostly wasted that high up the field.
Of the players on the preliminary 40-man roster for the tournament, seven others are listed as forwards. But Dempsey, as mentioned, is better playing off another striker, sitting behind one or even playing on the wing. Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood and Gyasi Zardes are speed merchants who are most useful running at defenders, not stretching the game from the top of the formation. Chris Wondolowski is a poacher who isn't very well qualified to start at the elite international level anyway and is most useful as a late, need-a-goal sub. And Ethan Finlay and Christian Pulisic are really attacking midfielders, who can slot in as wingers where necessary but have no business being up top.
There's only one Jozy Altidore. This is a fact and a tactical truth.
So now what?
Absent any other target man – or even a forward who can effectively play up top by himself – Klinsmann will most likely have to go to a two-striker system, probably lining up side by side.
This has a domino effect elsewhere on the field. Chances are it pulls one of three central midfielders out of the middle of the mark. Meaning that rather than field two defensive midfielders and one attacking one, a playmaker freed from any defensive shackles, two men will have to ferry back and forth between shielding the back line and joining up the attack. That, in turn, makes several players potentially relied upon to create chances centrally – Darlington Nagbe? Pulisic? – a much harder fit into the lineup. And it will surely put more of the playmaking onus on the likely central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The wingers, meanwhile, will have to sit a bit deeper so as not to crowd the two strikers.
These are all tactical adjustments that will probably make the U.S. worse. And the timing is fairly disastrous, happening ahead of a tournament where the Americans need every bit of talent and experience at their disposal – as the latter is concerned, Altidore is a veteran of two World Cups and a Confederations Cup. The group stage draw of Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay is a difficult one. And the U.S. is keen to show well at the biggest tournament on home soil since the 1994 World Cup.
This is all the more true after the debacle at the 2015 Gold Cup – a semifinal elimination by Jamaica, which was the worst American performance in its regional tournament in a decade and a half – and the subsequent loss in a Confederations Cup playoff with Mexico. To say nothing of the form on display ever since the World Cup in Brazil, which has vacillated somewhere between poor and pedestrian.
The loss of Altidore is just about the worst start the U.S. could have possibly made to its big summer.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.