In 10 days, the United States Men’s National Team takes on Costa Rica in a crucial World Cup qualifier in Commerce City, Colorado.
With the U.S. opening up the final round of qualifying with an away loss to Honduras last month and having to take on Mexico at the famed Estadio Azteca only four days after the Costa Rica match, a three-point effort against Los Ticos is key to U.S. success in qualifying.
Here’s why Jozy Altidore could be the catalyst for the U.S. to put their qualifying hopes back on track.
Jozy is in red-hot form
Right now, the U.S. forward pool is arguably the best it has ever been. In the 2010 World Cup, the U.S. started journeyman Robbie Findley in three of its four matches. Altidore started all four matches of the tournament, despite the fact that he was only 20 years old at the time and only had one full year in Europe under his belt with relegation-doomed Hull City.
Coming off the bench in that tournament for the U.S. was Edson Buddle and a then relatively unknown Herculez Gomez.
Today, the U.S. can choose between Clint Dempsey (usually deployed on the wing in the Bob Bradley era), Herculez Gomez, Jozy Altidore and promising youngsters Terrence Boyd and Juan Agudelo—all of whom have been in top form as of late.
The leader of the pack, in terms of form right now, is unquestionably Altidore.
While Clint Dempsey had an outstanding season in 2011-2012, setting the all-time scoring record for an American playing in Europe with 23 goals in all competitions, Altidore just broke that record last week scoring his 24th goal of the 2012-2013 season. And, it’s still only March.
Certainly, Dempsey’s achievement still carries more weight having been done primarily in the English Premier League, but Altidore’s goal-scoring rate this season has been amazing. One has to believe this will eventually translate into more production on his part for the Nats.
The U.S. defense is likely to give up some goals
Right now, the U.S. defense is struggling from a combination of injury and form issues. Steve Cherundolo, Fabian Johnson and Edgar Castillo are all carrying injuries and Carlos Bocanegra and Michael Parkhurst are struggling to find any time with their clubs. Omar Gonzalez’s lack of international experience showed against Honduras and Geoff Cameron can’t get a game with Stoke City at the center-back position he usually plays for the U.S.
To make matters worse, the U.S. will be without normal shot-stopper Tim Howard for the March qualifiers.
With a patchwork backline likely in place for the Costa Rica and Mexico games, the U.S. is likely to give up goals and will need to put together multi-goal efforts to find points.
With Clint Dempsey still recovering from a calf injury and having missed the last several games for Tottenham, he is unlikely to be at 100 percent. The bulk of the goal production for the U.S. in the March qualifiers is likely to fall on Altidore’s shoulders.
What does Jozy need to succeed with the USMNT?
Altidore’s last goal with the USMNT was scored in November 2011 against Slovenia—that goal came on a penalty kick.
Since then, Jozy has had some productive games—he assisted on Clint Dempsey’s game-winning goal against Italy—but he has struggled to find the back of the net himself.
So, what does Jozy need to succeed with the Nats?
First off, Altidore needs to bring the right attitude and work rate. In October, USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann dropped Altidore from the roster for that month’s qualifiers, inferring that he was not happy with Jozy’s effort. At the time, Klinsmann said:
“I communicated with Jozy that 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, and the reason why he's not coming in is mainly about the performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training. Also, certain things that went on through the May-June camp.”
In the Honduras game last month, Jozy's work rate was much improved. Despite being starved of service for much of the 90 minutes, Altidore worked hard off the ball and put forth a strong defensive effort. Despite the fact that Jozy was often isolated up top, he pressured the Honduras defenders for much of the match, chasing the ball in nearly 90-degree heat.
The big issue remaining for Altidore to find success with the U.S. is finding him some service. At AZ, where he sees plenty of chances, he flourishes. However, often with the U.S., Klinsmann has put Altidore up top by himself or played a narrow midfield that is unable to provide any sort of service from the flanks.
If Klinsmann can be pragmatic and return the U.S. to the 4-1-3-2 that they found success with late last year, Jozy can return to being a productive goalscorer for the U.S.
Altidore tends to play much better when he has a partner to work off of up top and a wide midfield that can both find him in space and serve balls into the box.
Against Costa Rica and Mexico, Altidore is very likely to get another chance to return to his goal-scoring ways for the U.S.—the USMNT desperately needs him to once again find some goals.
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