Coach Jurgen Klinsmann left forward Jozy Altidore off his squad for the U.S.'s two important upcoming World Cup qualifiers, a decision that may well be the most surprising of Klinsmann's 14-month tenure.
It's true that Altidore has not had a standout year for the U.S., providing no goals and one assist in two starts and four substitute appearances. With Hérculez Gómez and Clint Dempsey expected to start up top in Friday's qualifier at Antigua and Barbuda, it would not have been surprising to see Altidore come off the bench as a second-half sub. But for Altidore to be
After all, Altidore, 22, is tied for the Dutch league lead in goals with eight for AZ Alkmaar, including a terrific slaloming strike Sept. 30. The World Cup 2010 veteran has also played in a team-leading 17 straight World Cup qualifiers for the U.S. and brings big-game experience to the table. Under Klinsmann, the U.S. has scored more than one goal just three times in the coach's 18 games, which makes you wonder why he would leave the U.S.' most prolific European-based goal-scorer at the moment off the squad.
These are big games. The U.S., Guatemala and Jamaica all have seven points in Group A of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games of the semifinal round. Only the top two teams will advance to next year's final 10-game round. A win at last-place Antigua and Barbuda on Friday would mean the U.S. would only need a tie at home against Guatemala on Oct. 16 to advance from the group.
Altidore's omission is purely a coach's decision: He is not injured, and Klinsmann's decision has nothing to do with the two yellow cards Altidore picked up for AZ on Sunday. Nor was the move a result of any continued friction between U.S. Soccer and AZ, which would have had to release Altidore for national-team duty per FIFA rules since this is a FIFA international date.
"I communicated with Jozy that I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe over the last 14 months," Klinsmann said Monday. "Jozy can do much, much better. The reason why he's not coming in is mainly about his performances at Jamaica and at home [last month], also in training. Also certain things that went on through the May-June camp. So we decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon and give them a chance to show they've improved. They're both doing really well in MLS now."
What's more, Klinsmann reiterated last Thursday that club performance would matter in his roster selection. "It is really crucial when it gets down to World Cup Qualifiers when you put your roster together that you look at their individual schedule: who is in full swing, who is struggling getting games in, who is spending too much time on the bench," he told the U.S. Soccer website. "Going into these two decisive games we need to make sure they are all at 100 percent."
Yet club form doesn't really appear to matter much when it comes to Klinsmann's picks at forward. You may think Gómez deserves to start his eighth straight U.S. game up top on Friday -- and I do, based on his play with the national team -- but his club form has been spotty of late with just one start in Santos Laguna's last seven league games (on Saturday, when Gómez picked up a goal).
When I asked Klinsmann about his club form comment and how it relates to Altidore and Gómez, he said: "I think [club form] is absolutely important. Now it looks a little bit different in Jozy's case because he's doing well with Alkmaar, and he's scoring goals. But he hasn't done well with us in the last couple of camps. That's why I have more trust for these upcoming two games in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon."
Altidore could not be reached for comment in the wake of Klinsmann's decision, but I did speak with Altidore a few days ago, and what he said revealed a player who is hoping to translate his club success to the national team.
"First off, I just hope people will actually realize that I don't try to go to the national team and not play well," Altidore told me last Tuesday by phone from the Netherlands. "I've represented the country in so many games on the biggest stages. Of course, my intention is to do all I can to help the team win. It's a challenge. It's a different role and not an every-day environment, so the challenge is adjusting to that and still finding a way to be effective. Good players do that, and I want to become that.
"I think that is the next step in anyone's career," Altidore continued. "When you experience a little bit of success at club level, the whole challenge is to transfer that to the national team and become a complete player. Guys like Clint [Dempsey] have done it. I want to try and do that, but it takes time. It takes a real maturity and understanding of that with the national team. With the national team it's just a different animal, and I've got to adjust to that."
It certainly didn't help Altidore with the national team when AZ refused to release him before the start of the FIFA international window in May and early June, even though AZ's season was finished. As a result, Altidore missed the start of the U.S. camp in Florida and lost his starting spot to Gómez, who has run with it.
"I'm not going to sugarcoat anything, I think that hurt me," Altidore said. "It made me go backward in terms of the national team. I sat a couple games and didn't even dress for the Brazil game. I was thrown behind the eight-ball, and ever since I've been playing catch-up. It is what it is. All I can do is move forward and try to show the manager I deserve to be in the team."
When I came right out and asked Altidore -- are you and Klinsmann on the same page? -- he answered straight up. "I'm the student here," Altidore said. "I'm the player and I'm learning always. It doesn't matter if I don't understand. I have to get on the same page as the boss and all the senior players, not the other way around. I'm not a guy who can walk into the team and say, 'Guys, adjust to me.' That's not my mindset. I'm trying to get on the same page as them, and until I do that I'm sure I won't be playing. I want to try and do that as quickly as possible. I want to score great goals for the national team and be dominant for them. But unfortunately it's not so easy sometimes when the styles of play are much different."
Altidore said he has no issue with Gómez earning the last seven straight starts. "He's got to be one of the most underrated guys," Altidore said. "I watch him closely in training. I think it's well-deserved for him."
But he also explained that there are significant differences in the playing styles favored by AZ under Gertjan Verbeek and the U.S. under Klinsmann. The U.S. doesn't play with wingers and a true No. 10, he said, and his role has changed mightily with AZ from what he was doing earlier in his career.
"At the beginning I was a guy who loved to get the ball and run at people, but there was no real tactical area in my game," he said. "It was just get on the field and make things happen. Now it's a bit different. There's a way [Verbeek] wants me to play, and from there you try to bring your qualities. I'm playing more with my back to goal now, hold the ball up and get other people into the game. I'm just maturing as a player in that regard."
The result has been impressive for Altidore so far this season with AZ. "I feel like I'm coming into my own," he said. There's no reason that can't continue, of course. Altidore has nine goals in all competitions so far, one of the highest goal-scoring totals in any European country. But success with Klinsmann's national team may be farther away. After Klinsmann's omission Monday, in fact, it's a more distant prospect than anyone would have expected.