As the United States men's national team approaches its final World Cup warm-up game against Nigeria on Saturday (kickoff is at 6 p.m. ET, televised on ESPN and UniMas), one of the key areas of discussion is who the USMNT should be starting up top.
Jozy Altidore, who is head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's default choice at forward, has come under heavy criticism over the past year for his lack of form with club and country. In 39 games this past season with Sunderland in the English Premier League, Altidore scored only two goals. And for the U.S., he hasn't scored since October.
Last week, after USA's match against Turkey, Sports Illustrated writer Liviu Bird criticized Altidore on American Soccer Now:
This notion of "he did everything but score" with Jozy Altidore has to go away. He hasn’t produced in 10 months, and it’s time to find another solution. Jurgen Klinsmann’s continuous insistence on putting a below-average player who is out of form in the target striker role isn’t doing anything for the U.S.’s ability to score. Aron Johannsson has proven a few times, not least of which was in the Azerbaijan game when he came on and scored, that he would be a better choice right now.
But gone missing in the discussions over who should start over Altidore is how well he has actually been playing for the U.S. over the past two games. The main criticism remains his lack of goals, but a review of the video from the game against Turkey reveals that Altidore's presence up top is an absolute menace for any opponent to deal with and that his contribution to the team—even without scoring—is well worth a starting spot in the lineup.
Here are some examples.
In the eighth minute of play, Altidore got on the end of a long punt from goalkeeper Tim Howard. In doing so, he drew the attention of two Turkish defenders, freeing up Clint Dempsey to make a run into space. Altidore used his strength to hold off the nearest defender and laid the ball off to Dempsey, who wasted the chance.
In the 14th minute, Altidore received the ball with two defenders on his back.
With one touch, he had beaten them both and gotten in behind. He served the ball into the box, where it was cleared for a corner kick. Altidore scored on the ensuing set piece, although the goal was called back for a very soft foul.
In the 31st minute, Graham Zusi hoofed the ball forward, well behind the Turkish defense and into a space where Altidore had no chance of winning the ball.
But instead of giving up on the play, Altidore chased the ball, starting from inside his own half (it took the camera a second to catch up with Zusi's original "pass"), and ran down the Turkish defender. He won the ball off the defender and, about to go in alone on goal, was brought down from behind. The next image is Brad Davis about to take the free kick from where Altidore won the foul—50 yards from where he began his run.
In the 37th minute, Altidore once again exhibited his strength up top. Receiving the ball near the halfway line by himself, he beat both center backs to go in on goal.
Once again, the Turkish defenders were forced to take him out. He was taken down by the last defender (this image was taken a split second after the foul), which could have easily earned a red card and given the U.S. a man advantage for the last 50-plus minutes of play.
In the 58th minute, Altidore once again exhibited his ability to play with his back to goal and to draw the attention of defenders to free up space for his teammates. Receiving the ball 40 yards from goal, Altidore drew the attention of three defenders.
He flicked the ball to Clint Dempsey who, along with Graham Zusi, could have easily created a breakaway off Altidore's work.
In the 66th minute, Altidore's work rate was again on display. He dropped deep (he's actually behind both Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley in this picture) to win the ball off a Turkish player.
After winning the ball, Altidore kick-started the U.S. attack, and three passes and nine seconds later, Julian Green was in on goal.
Finally, in the 79th minute, Altidore was put in behind by Bradley. Many fans later criticized Altidore for not going to goal on this run, but as can be seen clearly from this video image, by the time he caught up with the ball, he had lost his angle to shoot.
Instead, Altidore unselfishly delivered this inch-perfect pass to Mix Diskerud, who wasted the chance.
All in all, regardless of whether or not he scored, Altidore's game against Turkey was fantastic. After the match, even Turkish coach Fatih Terim was full of praise for the American, saying Altidore is "the kind of striker center backs don't like very much."
Against teams like Ghana, Portugal and Germany, the U.S.'s group-stage opponents in the World Cup, the U.S. will need a striker with Altidore's specific skill set—namely the ability to hold the ball up and bring others into the run of play.
In those games, the U.S. will be facing teams who will likely dominate long spells of possession and the only way the U.S. midfield will be able to join the attack is if someone up top can win the ball and lay it off to other players moving up the pitch. Altidore is just that type of player.
Nigeria is the U.S.'s last warm-up game before the World Cup and Klinsmann shouldn't use the game to tinker with the rotation up top—he should stick with Altidore. After all, it's clear he is the key to the U.S. attack.
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