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The Striker

Looking for Mr. GoodStrike: An All-New ASN Column

Welcome to Will Parchman's American Soccer Now debut—the first in a series of columns exploring the humble past, the uncertain present, and the hopeful future of the American No. 9.
BY Will Parchman Posted
January 03, 2013
7:59 AM
Welcome to The Striker.

I spent some time in deep R.E.M.-level thought about the focus and long-term direction of this space. Ultimately, this is a column that aims to erect a sturdy derrick around the oil well of the American striker as it is known in an effort to tap into a gusher or two. In the process, I'm your mud man.

Over time, we will weave in and out of cubbyholes dug out by the forebearers of the American strike force. We will discuss why Clint Mathis was the most technically gifted striker we've ever produced and why we haven't (and perhaps can't) produce more. We will fawn over Brian McBride and puzzle over why Jozy Altidore has become such a puzzling case. (Is he or isn't he suited for the role to which he's been assigned for the U.S. national team?) We will visit Clint Dempsey's game and suss out why he's not a prototypical No. 9, having now perplexed three U.S. coaches on his best use. And we will most definitely talk about Bert Patenaude.

The point, though, is sociological in nature. Perhaps more than any other position, the striker has been the collective drip pan for the U.S player pool. Our history as a nation of full-lunged runners has, over time, stocked our rosters with robust midfielders of all stripes, reliable defenders with iron spines, and world-class keepers. And our most prolific striker of all time remains Eric Wynalda, whose most impressive club stretch abroad came in the German second division. So we'll strive to explore the striker conundrum and all of its small permutations. Who is the American striker? What are his ideals? And will the position ever catch up with the Big Foot-sized strides the others have made over the last decade?

Allow this to be a starting point, then, and let us push back the kickstand now.

My history with American strikers has informed my view on their utility. And, more specifically, the halting evolution of the position on these shores. America is home to the utilitarian forward. He is big and sturdy and can run for an eon. He tends to have clumsy feet of granite, though his disposition is steel. Never quit, never stop rotating into nooks and slivers of daylight in the box and roll forward like the tide pushing in. Anything else, like a substantive pass or a gentle, caressing touch, is bonus. And mostly unexpected.

And, sadly, even reliable holdup play among this burly group of No. 9s isn't guaranteed. The lack of international soccer in the 1970s and 1980s seems to have bruised this group's development more than other positions. You can teach a midfielder to crash in and you can show a defender how to stand his ground and you can even file down a keeper's reflexes. But there is something innately difficult and ethereal about what you teach a striker. You almost have to treat him like you might a Truffle Dog. He has to be trained to sniff the goal out of the mulch before he ever finds it. And this is a terribly difficult thing to achieve.

For years American strikers were the proverbial cake toppers of a pragmatic 4-4-2, content to sink into the fleshy morass and complement the movement at their back without adding much substantive flavor. We rarely see them do much but run determinedly and generally look concerned about the state of affairs unfolding on their flanks. They were like gangly teenagers still figuring out their limbs and coming to grips with their gawky dexterity.

Conor Casey is an instructive example, but he is merely the exposed part of the root. It goes deeper. It includes Kenny Cooper and Brian Ching and Edson Buddle and Chris Wondolowski and Herculez Gomez. Will Bruin helps carry the standard for the new generation of hard-nosed American forwards (is Jozy Altidore even an out-and-out striker? A question for another time). The outliers exist, as they always do, but the prototypical American striker represents qualities like industriousness (without so much skill) and work rate (without the ability to consistently channel it into more productive avenues). They are good strikers without much hope of ever becoming truly great.

But then there are those cracks in that utilitarian foundation that make you wonder. They stoke the fire that someday there will come a Chosen One who folds everything into one for the first time. Watch Clint Mathis' goal against South Korea in the 2002 World Cup, and marvel. In the narrative of the American striker it makes little sense. John O'Brien gallops through an acre of space in the 24th minute and lofts a tricky pass to Mathis, who has just played it onside and receives O'Brien's feed just on the edge of the area. His touch is cashmere. There is a defender draped off his back left shoulder and one on the right charging into his periphery and still Mathis cannot be more composed. The left-footed finish was indeed clinical—Mathis had that innate ability to swing his foot through like an irate pendulum in any circumstance—but it was his set-up that gets me. O'Brien's lofted pass was a tempest and Mathis calmed it on a stage that has gobbled up far more accomplished players. So you sit and wonder. "When will we see that again?"

The key here is to understand the player pool available and work your analysis around the framework. It is a pointless and frustrating endeavor to gerrymander your standards around, say, the effortlessness of a Patrick Kluivert or Dennis Bergkamp rather than the altogether holistic nature of a Brian McBride or the potential of a Terrence Boyd. Because the evolution of the American striker marches on. All we can do is march along with him.

In the next The Striker, we will trawl through the game of the young almost-American Aron Johannsson, whose will-he-won't-he saga between Iceland and America has somewhat buried the particulars of a very promising goal-getter. We'll sift through the YouTube reels (namely the viral vivacity of the fastest hat trick any of us have ever seen), pick through his short history, and figure out what it is about Johannsson that gets the blood percolating.

Have a topic in mind for a future column? Care to share your thoughts about this table-setting column? We'd love to hear what you have to say.

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