Does the USMNT have a Gold Cup striker dilemma?

Henry Bushnell
CLEVELAND, OH - JUNE 22: Gyasi Zardes of USA celebrates after scoring a goal to make it 4-0 during the Group D 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup fixture between United States of America and Trinidad & Tobago at FirstEnergy Stadium on June 22, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)
Gyasi Zardes celebrates one of his two goals in the USMNT's 6-0 Gold Cup win over Trinidad and Tobago. (Getty)

If the rabble-rousing ringleaders of Soccer Twitter were in charge of the U.S. men’s national team, Gyasi Zardes wouldn’t even be here.

Wouldn’t be in Kansas City on Wednesday. Wouldn’t be in Gold Cup starting 11s. Wouldn’t be on the roster tasked with claiming continental glory. And certainly wouldn’t be scoring game-clinching goals.

Because Zardes, who graces soccer dictionaries under both “good dude” and “serviceable,” has somehow become an emblem of all that ails the USMNT. He was selected over the Next Big Thing. He was starting despite uninspiring displays. His first touch had become a punchline, his temporary presence atop the striker depth chart proof of a missing generation.

Gregg Berhalter, however, had other ideas. Good thing, too. Zardes is here. Has been scoring. And because he has, Berhalter and the USMNT have an unforeseen, (somewhat) welcome dilemma: Which striker should they ride to Gold Cup glory? Their hottest and fittest? Or their best?

How we got here

Zardes was selected over 19-year-old Josh Sargent. Fans, in response, frothed at the mouth. But the decision, in the grand scheme of things, seemed relatively inconsequential. Jozy Altidore was making his way back from an injury. He’d played full 90s in MLS. He’d soon play 45 minutes in a friendly against Venezuela. Berhalter had said he expected his entire roster to be fit when the Gold Cup’s curtains parted.

Which meant Altidore in the starting lineup, as the No. 9 ... or so we all assumed.

But then the opener arrived, and there was Zardes’ name on the team sheet.

The reasoning that night was understandable: Berhalter had pre-planned two substitutions. Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic would exit after an hour. Berhalter couldn’t afford to start a third player who’d need to depart early. An injury to Weston McKennie proved his point. Unfortunately, it also prevented Altidore from getting off the bench.

“Jozy’s a player that is getting up to full speed,” Berhalter said after the 4-0 win over Guyana. “He’s done a great job this camp. When I talked to Jozy before the Gold Cup, about some of the expectations for him, he’s exceeded every expectation that we had of him. ... We’re excited to start integrating him.”

Four days later, though, it was again Zardes in the 11. Altidore only got 16 minutes as a sub. And although he helped create one goal, Zardes scored two. He timed an anticipatory run to perfection for his second tally of the tournament. He found the top corner for his third.

And thus, here we are. Wednesday’s game against Panama is relatively meaningless. The knockouts, though, are just four days away. Berhalter must decide between sticking with his guy – the team’s leading scorer since he took charge – and turning to the USMNT’s guy for the past decade.

The case for Zardes

On one hand, Altidore is better. Few in the know would dispute that.

On the other, he has played a grand total of 61 career minutes under Berhalter. Zardes has played over 3,000.

And no, this is not about playing favorites. It’s about familiarity, which matters.

Zardes is Exhibit 1A in Berhalter’s “striker whisperer” hall of fame. An LA Galaxy castoff, with two goals in 2017, he arrived in Columbus and exploded for 19 a year later.

Not only does he know the system, and not only does Berhalter know he knows the system, but it suits his strengths. Zardes’ lay-offs have never been the cleanest, his hold-up play never the strongest. But Berhalter’s system doesn’t ask strikers to do too much of either. Their responsibility is to score goals. Before they can do so, they have to get in positions to score goals. Zardes, though not the greatest finisher, can do that. His first against Trinidad, the product of a prophetic dart toward the goalmouth, was evidence.

Zardes’ shortcomings have been dissected ad nauseam. But when his team is superior – and when, therefore, they can build and create chances for him without his involvement – he is fine. Good, even. His work rate is exemplary. He’s better than Altidore as a defender and press-setter. Thanks to the awareness displayed above, he’s not significantly worse in the box.

And the U.S. will be superior compared to all but one of its Gold Cup foes. By a sizable margin in every game prior to the semis. So Berhalter can afford to ease Altidore back in. He can afford to hand Zardes at least one more start.

“As a coach, it gives you more flexibility,” Berhalter said Saturday of Zardes’ crisp play.

That said, if Jozy is fit, and when Mexico, Costa Rica or even Jamaica comes calling ... there is no debate.

The case for Altidore

If Zardes has been unfairly criticized at times – and fairly criticized at others, by the way – Altidore has been unfairly vilified. He was one of two scapegoats for a team- and system-wide failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The ignominy has overshadowed a remarkably persistent truth: Altidore is the USMNT’s top striker. Has been since he was a teenager. Was under Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. Is, and will be, under Berhalter.

His unheralded brilliance has always been about far more than goals. Of course, he has scored a lot of them for the national team – 41 before his 28th birthday, to be exact. But he does so much else that Zardes doesn’t. The ball moves quicker and cleaner when he’s on the pitch. His 16-minute cameo on Saturday offered glimpses.

“This is what you imagine when you see Jozy playing with our team,” Berhalter said after the game. “A guy you can play the ball into, he makes very good decisions, very soft feet. Good movement to create his own space. Very strong in physical duels. “

Now, Berhalter’s system might demand less of all that than previous USMNT setups. But that doesn’t mean the skills are irrelevant. Far from it.

Altidore is also a better finisher than Zardes. He’s more experienced at major tournaments.

Berhalter, therefore, should manage his striker rotation with a single aim: Have Altidore fit and firing, to the highest possible degree, on Wednesday, July 3. That’s the date of the potential semifinal. No matter the opponent, Altidore should be on the field for at least 60 minutes, and ideally more.

How Berhalter arrives at that point is up to him. But for a player in his first camp since Couva, building on-field relationships and system comfort is important. The boss knows this. Expect Altidore to play from the start at least once over the next two matches. He should, and almost certainly will, be the U.S. No. 9 in due course.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.