Time has run out on Jozy Altidore, whose recovery from a hamstring injury didn’t progress fast enough to warrant an extended place on the U.S. national team squad that will make a run at a second consecutive CONCACAF Gold Cup title.
Altidore was among three players cut Tuesday by U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who had the option of making up to six changes to his 23-man tournament roster following the conclusion of the group stage. Altidore will depart along with defender Greg Garza and midfielder Alfredo Morales. They’ll be replaced by veteran defender DaMarcus Beasley—who’s coming out of international retirement—forward Alan Gordon and midfielder Joe Corona.
The U.S. won Group A with a 2-0-1 record and concluded the first round with a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Panama on Monday night in Kansas City, Kansas. The result was irrelevant to the Americans, who already had clinched first place and booked passage to next Saturday’s quarterfinals.
The performance, however, was uneven once again. It's been a slog for the U.S. Clint Dempsey (three goals) and goalkeeper Brad Guzan have been outstanding and captain Michael Bradley has been vitally influential. But the team’s defending, possession and ability to control the tempo have been suspect.
Now, after playing three games in seven days, the U.S. will have nearly five to prepare for the quarterfinal in Baltimore, where it will face a third-place team from one of the other two groups.
“Looking back at the group stage I think it really confirmed what we were all saying, even if some people didn’t really want to believe it. It was the most difficult group we received with Honduras, Panama and Haiti,” Klinsmann said in a U.S. Soccer Q&A.
“I think it can only benefit you if you’ve had real games already in the group phase,” he added. “There’s no real preparation for the Gold Cup, so it’s difficult to be in a flow, it’s difficult to be playing in a way that you’re going to see a lot of automatic things, in the way of passing flow and fine tuning elements. You won’t get them in the group phase because you don’t have the time to train those things. Now being together for more than two weeks, hopefully we can get more and more into that phase where we combine better, we’re shifting better and doing certain things better that only come with time.”
Part of that shift will include the three roster changes. Here’s a closer look:
D Greg Garza (Atlas FC), MF Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt), F Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
Altidore started the first two games of the group stage, against Honduras and Haiti, and took two shots in 104 minutes of action.
He was involved in Dempsey’s opener against Honduras, reaching a loose ball in the penalty area and forcing a save from Donis Escober that produced an inviting rebound.
Altidore also helped set up what should have been a good goal by Aron Jóhannsson against Haiti that was ruled out incorrectly by the referee (although Altidore’s deflected pass followed his strange decision to forego a 12-yard shot).
But overall, Altidore struggled to make a consistent impact. Part of that was due to his team’s inability to hold the ball or involve him in the buildup, but he admitted following the Haiti game that he still wasn’t himself following a May 16 hamstring injury.
“Just slow,” Altidore said Friday when asked how he was feeling. “I’m not up to full speed with everybody else.”
He added, “Tonight showed a guy like Gyasi [Zardes] can come in and can do just as good, if not better. I think that showed the depth that we have in the team. A lot of guys can step up.”
Klinsmann now agrees.
Immediately after the Haiti game, the coach said, “He will get stronger and stronger with every day in training and every minute on the field, so we’re going to keep building him … We know he’s going to come sooner or later in this tournament and will score some goals, but we also want to be cautious about what we’re doing.”
Tuesday, Klinsmann said, “We believe that Jozy’s just not there yet. Jozy never really got into this tournament and never really picked up the rhythm. He’s just simply not in the shape right now to help us. For Jozy it’s just simply going back to Toronto, picking up his rhythm, getting in shape, working on his fitness and then he will start scoring goals again.”
Altidore has six goals in 12 MLS games for TFC, but just one in four club appearances since the injury.
Garza and Morales, the other two players cut Tuesday, were always pegged to be reserves. Garza offers a more defensive option at left back then Fabian Johnson, but Klinsmann’s decision to replace Garza with Beasley indicates the manager’s preference for a player likely to get more forward. Garza started the Haiti game but was relieved by Johnson in the 67th minute.
“He’s an emerging player. Greg Garza is there for the future,” Klinsmann said of the 23-year-old. “He’s only getting better. He’s done tremendously well these last two weeks, he knows that he has to grow more, get more experience and it’s as simple as that. It’s why we made the switch. It’s really fun to work with Greg. He has a great character, a great attitude every day – he gives you everything. For him it was another step in the right direction for the national team and he totally understands that we want to switch it for right now.”
Morales started Monday’s game against Panama. His first Gold Cup appearance was mostly anonymous and he was replaced at halftime.
“Alfredo is still on the rise,” Klinsmann said. “But he’s still in the process to become a part of our team in the fine-tuning element. There are certain things that just don’t click yet, and it’ll just take a little bit of time. Right now in the tournament, we don’t have that time. In the tournament now we need to produce results and get things done.”
D DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo), MF Joe Corona (Veracruz), F Alan Gordon (LA Galaxy)
Beasley’s international return is now official. The four-time World Cup veteran, now 33, said goodbye to the U.S. in December. But Klinsmann contacted him when putting together his 35-man preliminary Gold Cup roster and asked Beasley if he’d be willing to return if needed.
He is needed. This will be Beasley’s sixth Gold Cup. He captained the team to the 2013 title and has earned 121 caps, good for fifth all-time.
“Having DaMarcus come into the team is huge because of his character, his giving nature, the spirit he brings, but also the high quality he brings,” Klinsmann said. “He brings a lot of experience into this group, and he’s hungry. He’s still as hungry as day one in his career. That speaks for us having him back in the group and now it gives us a couple of different options on how to put pieces together.”
Those options are key. Deploying Beasley at left back frees Klinsmann up to move Fabian Johnson into midfield, where his attacking instincts and ability on the ball will be more evident (and where the U.S. has struggled throughout the tournament). Or, it allows Johnson to shift over to right back in place of the inconsistent Timmy Chandler. The latter move likely gives Klinsmann the option of getting something closer to his best 11 on the field.
Corona, 25, is a playmaker who “knows CONCACAF inside-out,” Klinsmann said.
“He’s a player that can also help us, here and there, to hold the ball better, to take care of the ball. With his great technique, with his one-touch passing, he makes things very easy and simple. I think it’s a great opportunity to have Joe back, even if it hurts a little bit for Alfredo, but that’s just part of the game,” the coach added.
Corona’s only U.S. appearance this year was in the first half of the April win over Mexico.
Gordon, the charismatic Galaxy reserve renowned for his late-game heroics, has been capped only once—back in 2012. He made that appearance count, however, providing the assist on Eddie Johnson’s late game-winner in a World Cup qualifier at Antigua and Barbuda.
Gordon was a reserve on the 2013 Gold Cup winning team and has four goals this year for LA. He’ll give Klinsmann the option to deploy a genuine target in the penalty area.
“He’s fully fit. He’s so full of energy. He scores goals with the Galaxy and he fits in right away,” Klinsmann said. “He’s a pure giver to the group, and he might be a player that can make a difference at any second when you bring him in.”
The U.S. will learn its quarterfinal opponent late Wednesday, when the group stage concludes.
“Now it’s about knockout games. It’s do-or-die,” Klinsmann said. “There’s no calculation involved anymore. There’s no fixing afterwards. You have to win the games now.”