When the United States Men’s National Team roster was announced last Monday, a shock wave was sent throughout the U.S. Soccer fanbase.
Distressing to many fans was the fact that perennial USMNT call-up Jozy Altidore was dropped from the roster and Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon were called in.
Following the roster announcement, U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann did not pull any punches and defended his decision, saying,
I communicated to Jozy I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months. I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason he’s not coming in is mainly because of his performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training, and also certain things that went on through the May-June camp. We decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon and give them a chance to show how much they have improved. They’re both doing very well in MLS right now.
Of course, now seeing the results that Klinsmann’s roster produced, Altidore has quickly become an afterthought in the minds of many USMNT fans.
So, what will Altidore have to do to earn his way back onto the team prior to the 2014 World Cup?
Proving Himself to Klinsmann
First, Altidore will have to address Klinsmann’s impression of him.
It is obvious that Klinsmann has not been happy with Altidore in training and one can reasonably assume, especially watching the last few USMNT matches that Altidore has been involved in, that Jozy’s work rate in those games may be an issue.
In the past seven days, the U.S. played its two most important matches of the year. Entering Friday’s game against Antigua and Barbuda, the U.S. needed four points from its remaining two qualifiers to guarantee advancement to the hexagonal.
That is not the time that most coaches would decide to start experimenting with their roster. Nor is it the time to try and send a message to a player, as some have suggested Altidore’s no-call was intended to do.
However, with the United States' back against the wall, and Klinsmann’s job possibly on the line, Klinsmann did not select Jozy.
Games like the last two matches the U.S. played come down to trust for a coach. When things are tight, coaches tend to go with players they trust are going to give a full effort.
And it is safe to assume that Klinsmann does not trust Altidore enough right now to play him in games that the U.S. needs results in.
Replicating His Club Form for the National Team
A lot of the criticism Jozy Altidore has faced over the past year-and-a-half has been largely unwarranted. While Altidore’s work rate in games is fair game, he has continued to be a contributing member of the team even while not scoring a lot of goals.
The May-June fiasco, when Altidore was not released by Alkmaar until the team was well into the camp, was not Jozy’s fault.
And anyone who has watched Jozy over the past year has seen that his movement off the ball, his hold-up play and his finishing are all markedly improved since he was a big part of the U.S.’s success in the 2009 Confederations Cup and the 2010 World Cup.
However, as Jozy’s abilities have risen, his goals for the national team have seemed to dry up. Jozy scored 10 of his 13 international goals in his first 30 months with the national team. Since then, he has scored three goals in 24 months.
But at the same time, Jozy’s international goal-scoring form has gone missing; he has become a goal-scoring dynamo for his club, AZ Alkmaar.
In his first season in the Eredivise last year, Altidore scored 19 goals in all competitions and finished seventh in the league. This season, he leads the league with eight goals.
And while many criticize the Dutch league for its lack of defense, the Eredivisie has also been known as a place where young strikers hone their craft before big moves to the top clubs in Europe.
Altidore has also done this while playing for a manager at AZ known for his no-nonsense approach, Gertjan Verbeek.
Surely, if Altidore can prove his worth to a manager like Verbeek, he can do it with the comparatively laid-back Klinsmann.
What is Jozy Altidore's place on the U.S. national team?
Get Some Help
Another aspect of Altidore’s “poor” play with the USMNT team has been more related to the team’s tactics than Altidore’s play.
While at AZ, Altidore is part of a high-flying attacking system. By comparison, his recent games with the USMNT team have been characterized by a lack of midfield creativity and overly defensive tactics.
Under former manager Bob Bradley, Altidore was used exclusively in two-striker sets. Under current manager Jurgen Klinsmann, Altidore has been used as a lone striker on most occasions.
Also under Klinsmann, the U.S.’s offensive displays have been fairly impotent. In his 20 games in charge, the U.S. has only scored more than one goal five times. Against Jamaica in Kingston, one of the games U.S. fans were particularly critical of Altidore, the U.S. offense was downright anemic, and Klinsmann fielded three defensive midfielders in Kyle Beckerman, Maurice Edu and Jermaine Jones.
After the first game against Jamaica, Klinsmann largely ditched the 4-3-3 that he had been attempting to shoe-horn the U.S. into for the past year and went with a 4-1-3-2 that has produced open attacking play and given the U.S. some much-needed width and service from the flanks.
Jozy would be much better off in Klinsmann’s newly adopted system than he was in the former system with little wing play.
Beat out the Competition
If Klinsmann was trying to send Altidore a message by leaving him off the roster, the U.S. results this past week will only have bolstered that message.
Klinsmann has effectively proved that the U.S. can win without Altidore. Now, it’s up to Jozy to prove that he can contribute enough to earn his way back on the squad.
With the solid performance of Eddie Johnson over the last two games (even though Johnson was used as a wing, he is obviously a natural forward), Altidore’s road back to the national team will be tougher.
However, Herculez Gomez is 30 years old, Clint Dempsey is 29, Eddie Johnson is 28 and Alan Gordon is 31. Chris Wondolowski, who surely is still in the national team picture, is 29.
People often forget that Jozy Altidore is still only 22.
The aging pool of U.S. strikers means that the fitness of the players above is not guaranteed and that when Altidore inevitably gets another shot with the team, he needs to take advantage of it.
Another example of an opportunity to prove his worth will be the upcoming November friendly the U.S. has scheduled with Russia.
The MLS Playoffs will be in full swing and it is very likely the San Jose Earthquakes and the Seattle Sounders will still be alive, meaning Wondolowski, Johnson and Gordon will not be available.
If Jozy gets the call, he needs to take advantage of the opportunity to put himself back in Klinsmann’s good graces.
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