The United States Men’s National soccer team faces a crucial week ahead, and they are going to have to do it fairly shorthanded. Already ruled out through injury are Landon Donovan and Brek Shea. Possibly joining them is Jermaine Jones, who has a gammy ankle. Luckily back for these games is the midfield engine Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey should be a more useful player than he was in the last round of international competition after seeing regular action for Tottenham Hotspur over the last month.
Then there is the case of Jozy Altidore. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann decided to omit his most naturally gifted out-and-out striker from this roster, and while he seems to have his reasons, the move is still a curious one.
Altidore, while always talented, is still not a production machine in a U.S. uniform. His 13 goals in 51 appearances for the national team suggest the American version of Emile Heskey, rather than the player who announced himself to the world at the 2009 Confederations Cup by manhandling a much more experienced Joan Capdevila en route to scoring the winning goal against Spain. Ever since that moment, Altidore has been living a strange soccer life. Fans keep waiting to see that goal again, and the more time passes, the more it seems like a fluke.
The reality of the situation, however, is that Altidore is still an incredibly young player, who won’t turn 23 until next month. The folly of his goal against Spain is that it possibly occurred too early in his career. Altidore scored that goal on raw instinct, and still had so much to learn about his craft (and still does).
Altidore’s relationship with Klinsmann does not seem particularly cordial. After dropping his striker, the manager stated that it was due to his play in games as well as his work in training “over the past 14 months.” There has been talk of a much-publicized (and now deleted) tweet from Altidore in which he allegedly disparages Klinsmann for “blaming his failures on other people.”
Sparing you the sports cliché about how these men don’t have to like each other for this situation to work out, it is time to get to the point. It is crunch time for the national team, and Altidore needs to be wearing red, white and blue this weekend, for no other reason that he is the best that we’ve got.
Klinsmann’s stand is admirable, in a way. Modern players in all sports are quick to cite their reputation as a reason they should receive playing time, or awards, or special treatment. Klinsmann clearly doesn’t care for reputation, but he is still making a mistake. The United States simply does not have the talent depth for him to be making these types of choices, especially in the attacking positions. With Shea and Donovan already out, this team is in danger of relying too much on Dempsey for a creative spark. The strikers that Klinsmann did select are a mystery bag. Herculez Gomez has had a decent year for country with three goals in 2012, including a decisive free kick against Jamaica in September, but he has seen some time on the bench for his Mexican club Santos recently. Conversely Altidore is co-leading the Dutch Eredivisie with 8 goals this term.
Beyond Gomez, Eddie Johnson’s strike rate for the national team is similar to Altidore’s (12 goals in 42 caps), but his last one came on June 15, 2008. Alan Gordon is third on the list, but he is a 30-year old with zero international experience. This is the reality for U.S. soccer. Once you get past the elite players, a group in which Altidore should be considered, the drop-off is swift and precipitous.
2012 has been a strange year for the U.S. National team. For every historic victory (Mexico, Italy) there has been a strange negative result to counter-balance (drawing with Canada and Guatemala). Goalscoring has been at a premium for a team that, in eleven matches this calendar year, has turned in only one truly great performance offensively (a 5-1 demolition of Scotland). On paper, the United States should easily be able to achieve the four points necessary to survive to the next round of World Cup Qualifying, but wouldn’t we all feel better about that prospect if we knew the best players were playing?
Before you commend Klinsmann on his gutsy choice, consider whether or not he actually had a choice to make.