FEATURE: What is the future of the US national team's strike force?

Monday’s January camp roster release marked the first event of a potentially momentous year for the US national team, extending prized invitations to 30 players, many of them coming in from the fringes of a depth chart as the program plunges into a time of transition.

The outlook might be foggiest up top.

These are strange days for the USMNT. Little is known about the shape of the future beyond February’s federation presidential election and the leadership changes it will bring. Yet interim boss Dave Sarachan, like most coaches, is a pragmatist at heart. He will do his best to set a business-as-usual tone at StubHub Center for the next two-plus weeks, aiming for earnest and productive labor capped by a worthwhile performance in the international friendly vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina on Jan. 28.

So let’s talk about who might score the goals, both this month and beyond. At present there are more questions than answers.

A full spectrum

It’s been painted as a young, hungry roster, with 15 players seeking their first cap. US Soccer’s press release notes that 21 players are 24 and under, while the average age of the roster will be 24 years, 93 days. The strike force is a decidedly mixed bag, however – and it’s reflective of the wider state of the USMNT’s front line as a whole.

The eight strikers named to this January camp range in age from 20-year-old Real Salt Lake sparkplug Brooks Lennon (pictured above) to CJ Sapong, the Philadelphia Union targetman enjoying a belated international spotlight at age 29. And this group comprises barely half of the total number of forwards recently called up, with the likes of Jozy Altidore (age 28), Clint Dempsey (34), Chris Wondolowski (also 34) and even 17-year-old phenom Josh Sargent in the mix lately.

The presence of Sapong, his former club teammate Dom Dwyer and deserving debutant Christian Ramirez (both 26) makes for a particularly intriguing plotline: Who can earn themselves an Indian summer at this level, at this point in their careers?

Simple math suggests they’ll be too long in the tooth for Qatar 2022. But someone has to be an effective spearhead in the near term, and all three have useful traits that deserve sustained inspection from Sarachan’s staff as well as his eventual successor’s. Plus, they’re easy guys to root for, having paid their dues and then some over the years, mostly with smiles on their faces.

A place for the veterans?

In the light provided by the flaming wreckage of the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, it’s not hard to posit that Bruce Arena – and perhaps Jurgen Klinsmann, too – allowed the squad to get too old and stale. Does that mean the established players must be cast aside as a matter of course? This probably won’t get answered for a while yet, but it bears inspecting.

As infuriatingly inconsistent as he can be, Altidore (pictured above) remains one of the most talented forwards in the program’s modern history. That’s why so much of the past decade or so has been spent trying to make the most of him – searching for the formation, strike partners and lineups that unleash his full abilities. Is it time to give all that a rest? Or does he remain in the mix, perhaps with a less pivotal place in the setup?

Dempsey has been stubbornly irreplaceable for years now, powered by his unique gifts and dogged mentality. Is it time to give him the proverbial gold watch and handshake and bid him adieu? Or maybe, just maybe, he keeps banging them in for Seattle, and his value and reputation survives the fiasco that was 2017.

At 25, Bobby Wood still has time. Should he find and sustain fitness and form at Hamburg, his combination of attributes and high-level Bundesliga placement will keep him on the radar going forward. The question this month is which January campers will take pole position in the race to join him.

Second chances

Over the next two weeks you’ll probably hear a lot about tantalizing talent and unfulfilled potential, because there’s plenty of that out at StubHub Center.

Juan Agudelo seems a lot older than his 25 years, doesn’t he? He was not quite 18 yet when he scored on his USMNT debut at South Africa back in 2010, a record-breaking achievement that many of us thought heralded a superstar in the making. The fact that he’s netted just two more goals and 26 more caps since then is a product of disappointing underachievement, yes, as well as some hard luck and unhelpful bumps and twists in the road.

Agudelo remains an extremely skilled and well-rounded attacker who can fill multiple roles at a high level. The New England Revolution’s hopes for a 2018 resurgence probably hinge on his year ahead, and if he can finally find and maintain his best soccer, a growing national-team role will be a logical byproduct.

Jordan Morris just suffered through a mostly frustrating, injury-blighted sophomore MLS season. That said, he tied with Altidore as third-leading scorer for the USMNT across all competitions in 2017 with four goals, including the game- and tournament-winner in the Gold Cup final. In fact, his scoring rate, in terms of goals-per-90-minutes, was the team’s best.

Some see him as a one-trick pony, a speed merchant with limited upside. Morris’ challenge is to upend that narrative while also maximizing his particular gifts, and the fastest way there is that old cliché, “end product.” J-Mo’s year will hinge on him continuing to find the net with efficiency.

Rubin’s case is a bit different, but his challenge is much the same. An exciting teenage prospect who hit the Dutch Eredivisie with a bang four years ago, he’s now without a club and in need of a helping hand to get back on track. Quick, strong, technically sound, able to contribute centrally or on the flanks, the Oregonian might just be playing for his career this month, and clubs both at home and abroad will be watching.

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