Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
Jurgen Klinsmann made sure to offer up as thorough an explanation as possible on Monday for his decision to leave Jozy Altidore off the U.S. national team roster for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers.He pointed to national team form, and cited tactical reasons for wanting to look at new players. The explanations still rang a bit hollow though because while you can't argue with the notion that Altidore's U.S. national team form has been largely disappointing, it is extremely tough to deny that, based on recent club form, Altidore is one of the best players in the national team pool.
So why would Klinsmann leave off a player enjoying the best run of form of his professional career, a player currently scoring goals at a higher rate than anybody save for MLS MVP favorite Chris Wondolowski? Klinsmann made it clear he was unhappy with Altidore's effort, both in games and in training, an admission that reveals the Altidore snub to be about something other than fielding the best possible team for the crucial qualifiers against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala.
Klinsmann is sending a message, not just to Altidore, but to the entire U.S. player pool, that no job is safe, and that if you don't play well enough you can lose your spot. As admirable a stance as that is to take, the timing of it, with the national team's World Cup qualifying hopes on the line, feels very much like a risky gamble.
It is clear that Klinsmann has grown frustrated with Altidore's ineffectiveness during his coaching tenure, and his decision to snub Altidore revealed just how much, but for that decision to come on the heels of what has arguably been Altidore's best run of club form ever leaves you scratching your head.
Club form doesn't guarantee you national team success. We have seen that many times before, but Altidore is clearly playing with confidence for AZ Alkmaar, and scoring some beautiful goals that lead you to believe he is really improving as a player. That run of form did little to erase Klinsmann's memory of what he considered subpar games and training sessions from Altidore during his recent national team stints. Klinsmann's public opinion of the Dutch League (he essentially called it an easy league to score in during a recent ESPN interview) must not have helped his evaluation process either.
No, instead of calling in one of the leading scorers in Europe, Klinsmann chose to call in Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson, two players enjoying outstanding seasons in MLS and two players Klinsmann believes to be better suited to matching up against the expected bunkering defenses of Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala.
It seems like a reasonable enough thought process except for the fact that a significant part of the reason for Altidore's struggles has been the lack of service provided him by the U.S. attack in his recent appearances. It isn't as if perfect crosses and through passes are being delivered Altidore's way with regularity, and it isn't as if he is squandering clear-cut chances.
it is tough to believe that Klinsmann's decision to leave Altidore out is really about tactics, and not about wanting to send Altidore a wake-up call Klinsmann feels he needs, even if it means not calling in the strongest possible team.
That is what makes Klinsmann's decision a gamble, and the fact the U.S. has yet to secure its place in the next round of World Cup qualifying makes it a risky gamble. If things get weird in the upcoming matches, and the U.S. find themselves needing a goal, and one of Klinsmann's reclamation projects winds up wasting a chance that costs the United States the World Cup, Klinsmann will be toast, as will the U.S> national team.
You have to give Klinsmann credit though. While he may be gambling, he also knows the odds are considerably in his favor. He knows that the United States should be able to secure the necessary points to qualify, and the roster he has called in is still more than good enough to beat Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala. He knows Clint Dempsey and Herculez Gomez are his leading forward options, which means he would have very likely used Altidore off the bench. Johnson is playing well enough right now to be a servicable option in that sort of role, so from a practical standpoint Altidore's absence shouldn't make a big difference.
So why take the chance? Consider it a long-term strategic bet. It is Klinsmann's best chance to send a unmistakable message to Altidore to light a fire under him heading into the final round of World Cup qualifying in 2013. We have seen Gertjen Verbeek get the most out of Altidore with the help of some tough love so maybe Klinsmann see this as his opportunity to crack the whip and hopefully unleash the version of Altidore that also scores national team goals in bunches. Klinsman needs that Altidore to emerge in 2013 because the final round of World Cup qualifying isn't going to be easy.
If things go according to plan, the U.S. will advance in World Cup qualifying and Klinsmann will score major points for his roster decisions even though, in the grand scheme of things, the United States shouldn't have had any trouble with Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala either way. Klinsmann will receive the bulk of the credit for a successful finish to this round of qualifying and, will not only head into the Hexagonal round of qualifying in stronger standing, he will also have the attention of a player pool that will have gotten the message that nobody's job is safe.
And if he's lucky, he may even find himself fielding a more motivated Jozy Altidore in 2013, a player that no coach in their right mind would consider leaving off a roster.
All of these things make it a worthwhile gamble for Klinsmann. That's IF things go according to plan.
If things go badly, and if the Americans have more trouble with these last two qualifiers than they should, or even fail to qualify, and players like Gordon and Johnson fail to step up when called upon, Klinsmann will have plenty to answer for, and one of the first questions he will be asked was whether leaving out Jozy Altidore was a mistake.