SAN JOSE, Costa Rica >> With about 15 minutes remaining in the United States’ game against Mexico on Friday night, Jozy Altidore settled under a looping pass at the top of the penalty area and, without even needing to look, chested the ball right into the path of Bobby Wood, who turned and whipped a blistering shot that the Mexican goalkeeper beat away.
The sequence, while not as productive as one earlier in which Wood scored the only U.S. goal in a 2-1 loss to Mexico, was critical all the same.
“Jozy just knew I was there — we hadn’t talked about it, and I didn’t shout or anything,” Wood said. “When you’re building a relationship, those are the kinds of things that tell you good things are happening.”
As the United States prepares for its next match in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup — which will be played Tuesday night against Costa Rica — questions about its depth of personnel and the ever-changing tactical choices of coach Jurgen Klinsmann have become more pointed, particularly because Friday’s loss was the first home defeat in a World Cup qualifier for the Americans in 15 years.
But the interplay of Altidore and Wood was a clear positive to come out of the Mexico match, and Klinsmann did not hesitate to make clear Monday that he sees the partnership as crucial. With the status of the veteran forward Clint Dempsey uncertain as he deals with an irregular heartbeat, Klinsmann said there was an obvious difference between what he sees from Altidore and Wood and what he sees from other forwards who might be hoping to crack the U.S. lineup.
“We have to be honest about that,” Klinsmann said. “The others know, too — there is a gap to Jozy and to Bobby right now.”
The rest of Klinsmann’s tactical choices, however, are less straightforward. In the aftermath of the Mexico defeat, Klinsmann has been skewered by fans and some in the news media for using an unusual formation at the start of the game, only to change it after about 25 minutes — once the Americans were already trailing by a goal and it was clear the team was flailing.
Midfielder Michael Bradley, the team’s captain, said afterward that the United States lacked “clear ideas” about what it was doing to stop Mexico early on, a line of thinking that was interpreted by many as a criticism of Klinsmann’s choice to use a strategy that even the coach conceded was less familiar to the players.
Klinsmann, on the other hand, said he thought that the struggles of Bradley and Jermaine Jones in the midfield were the primary reasons the formation did not work, and Klinsmann did not back off his decision to use it. Unlike coaches in many U.S. sports, Klinsmann also declined to deflect the focus away from his players, instead calling out the issues he saw on the field.
Speaking to a small group of reporters Monday at the team’s hotel here, Klinsmann said that calling for a change in formation — even in a big match against a bitter rival — was the sort of adjustment that a top team needs to be able to make.
“It was not too ambitious,” he said, explaining that he believed the 3-4-1-2 lineup he initially deployed would ultimately give Christian Pulisic, the wunderkind midfielder, more space in which to roam and create havoc for the opposition.
“The safest way is not always the best,” Klinsmann continued. “What does the future look like? The 3-4-1-2 is a system that plays to the strength of the players we have.”
He added: “I think it’s important that you are flexible enough. We will need to have a couple of different options going into Russia. If you come in with one way to play, it’s so easy for top teams to shut you down.”
While the merits of different tactics figure to continue to prompt debate among those around the team, the combination of Altidore and Wood seems far sturdier. While Altidore has been a mainstay for the Americans for years, Wood’s emergence has been more recent.
Originally from Hawaii, Wood moved to California in 2005 and then to Germany in 2007, leaving his family at 14 to train with 1860 Munich — an experience he says made him a better player but involved considerable struggle as he dealt with racism, bullying, anti-American discrimination and the culture shock of leaving his family at such a young age.
“I got bullied a lot there, and knowing what I went through now, I wouldn’t recommend it,” Wood said. “It came from the players, the coaches — it’s just a different culture. In California, we were all best friends. We would hang out after training. In Europe, it was ‘Who’s this new kid?’ They made fun of me in their language so I couldn’t understand, but I knew what was happening.”
Wood described encountering racism for the first time in Munich — “if you don’t have white skin in Munich and you walk into a restaurant, you get — how can I say it? — a second look” — as well as the constant denigration of U.S. soccer and U.S. soccer players.
When Wood was 15, he asked to spend an extra week at home in California at the end of winter break because he had been able to go home only once every six months. The club executives told him that his teammates — all Germans who were able to see their parents every weekend — would be returning to training, so he had to do the same.
Another time, a Brazilian teenager came to Munich for a tryout and was “horrible,” Wood said, “but because he was Brazilian, it was just assumed that he was amazing, that of course he would be better than any American.
“I always felt like I had to do three times as more as a German kid,” Wood said. “I wanted to leave almost every year. But that was how I came up. And I’m proud I stayed through it.”
Despite the difficulties, the path ultimately led Wood to where he hoped. He made his debut for 1860 Munich’s first team in 2011, moved to Union Berlin in 2015 and scored 17 goals in his first season, then signed with Hamburger SV, a team in the Bundesliga, this past spring.
He has also scored eight goals in 18 appearances for the national team over the past two years, keeping himself squarely in Klinsmann’s plans.
“I went through a lot of difficult and depressing times in Germany,” Wood said, “and it changed me as a person, for sure. But this was my path, and it’s how I got here. So even though it was hard, I wouldn’t change it.”