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With Dempsey out, US counting on Bobby Wood to keep scoring

United States v Ecuador: Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 16: Bobby Wood #7 of the United States dribbles against Ecuador during the 2016 Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario match at CenturyLink Field on June 16, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) Between his surprising summer with the U.S. men’s national team last year and his dazzling Bundesliga debut with Hamburg last week, it’s been an impressive 14-month stretch for forward Bobby Wood.

It might just be the beginning, too.

With Clint Dempsey sidelined because of an irregular heartbeat, U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is counting on the 23-year-old Wood to continue his rise.

[ MORE: USMNT preview | Lineup projection ]

Wood likely will start alongside Jozy Altidore when the Americans play at St. Vincent and the Grenadines in a World Cup qualifier Friday. A U.S. victory coupled with Trinidad and Tobago beating Guatemala would advance the Americans to the hexagonal round that begins in November.

If Wood keeps playing like he has, he surely will become an integral part of the team’s offensive attack.

“Bobby made big, big strides, there’s no doubt about it,” Klinsmann said. “That jump from Union Berlin to Hamburg, to a big club, is huge. The way he opened up things in his first game with a beautiful goal, it’s a strong signal from him. He says, `I’m ready. I’m ready to take over maybe more responsibility here, maybe have a bigger load on my shoulders.’

“That’s what we were hoping for. And he seemed to kind of respond well.”

It wasn’t that long ago that Wood was widely viewed as an underachiever for the U.S.

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But he stayed patient, kept working on his game and then had a big breakthrough in 2015. He scored winning goals in an exhibition against the Netherlands and another five days later against Germany.

He followed that with another strong season for second division Union Berlin, scoring 17 goals, and then completed a transfer to Hamburg. He made his debut for Hamburg in a Cup match Aug. 22, then five days later controlled a kick from the goalkeeper, beat a defender and scored from long range against Ingolstadt in a 1-1 draw.

“It’s amazing,” Wood said. “It’s a really proud moment and something I worked hard for. ... Strikers are all about confidence, and it’s nice that I got to score.”

Wood also scored once for the U.S. squad that finished fourth in the Centennial Copa America this summer. His recent play surely eased some of the criticism directed at him.

“I think he took a lot of stick in terms of just maybe not performing as well as he could be, but the group believed in him,” Altidore said. “We’ve all known him here. He’s been part of the camp, part of the team, for a long time. To see him now kind of come out of his shell is no surprise. He’s a talented player and he’s going to continue to grow.”

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The Americans spent a few days training in Jacksonville before flying to St. Vincent. They will return to Jacksonville on Saturday and face Trinidad and Tobago in the finale of the CONCACAF semifinals Tuesday night.

Midfielder Michael Bradley and defender Michael Orozco, both suspended for Friday’s match, will return for the finale. Altidore will serve as captain until Bradley returns. Injured midfielder Jermaine Jones was dropped from the roster because of a knee injury.

Wood, meanwhile, will try to stay hot.

“He’s just well-rounded,” Altidore said. “I think his work rate is fantastic. He’s a little bit of a pit bull, you know? He makes it uncomfortable for defenses. It was rough on him in the beginning. I thought people were harsh on him. But I think now you see him starting to grow. He’s more confident. He’s got a great transfer in Hamburg, and you see around the group, he’s just brighter, happier, and I think he’s improved a lot and he’s going to continue to improve.”