IN JURGEN'S DEFENSE
Shockwaves reverberated through American soccer circles when Jurgen Klinsmann announced the roster for upcoming World Cup Qualifiers.
These shockwaves were in response to the omission of a player who has been riding a streak of superb club performances, earning plaudits from pundits both foreign and domestic.
It's Sacha Kljestan, right? Nope. Herculez Gomez? Nope. Michael Parkhurst? Nope. All three of those former cases of National Team neglect have been called into duty, though their stories at one time or another shared the same characteristics as the seemingly glaring omission of Jozy Altidore.
Klinsmann's roster to face Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala features the shocking absence of the AZ Alkmaar sharpshooter who currently leads the Eredevisie in scoring. Altidore has been a regular feature on National Team rosters and in National Team lineups for years now, and his run of consecutive World Cup Qualifying appearances was far and away beyond his next best challenger on the roster.
Altidore has 23 goals in 42 league appearances for AZ, which is nothing short of remarkable for a young American striker on a foreign stage. His additional five goals in domestic cup and Europa League play are the icing on top, and his three assists this season have shown him to be a competent playmaker as well.
He has been logging consistent playing time under the same hardnosed coach that spurred Michael Bradley to great things, and though his work rate continues to be questioned at times, Altidore largely seems to have finally settled into a groove.
All of this success has kept him in Klinsmann's plans this year, allowing Altidore to keep his spot with the National Team. Just like Brad Friedel's streak ending this past weekend with Tottenham, however, this too was bound to come to an end. The key difference between the two though, is that Friedel's end was seemingly uncalled for, and Altidore's is seemingly wholly deserved.
It may seem like a shocking conclusion to reach, but statistics work in favor of it, and while statistics can be flawed, there comes a time when they need to be given some weight. The statistics in Altidore's case do not add up to him continuing to be a presence on the National Team. Going back to 2010, Altidore has played in 23 games for the red, white and blue, logging 1,462 minutes, or an average of 63 minutes per game. During that time, he has recorded four goals and three assists.
The numbers don't lie in this case. There are intangible benefits of having Altidore on the field, such as his ability to draw defenders and get the opposing team in foul trouble (though even that has been called into question recently), but his efficacy as a striker has been whittled down more and more. His scoring rate is a mediocre one goal every 365 minutes, and his assist rate is once every 487 minutes.
Taken together, Altidore is directly involved in a U.S. goal every 208 minutes since 2010, and his shot on goal average isn't much better, at one in every 132 minutes. It should go without saying that in order to be an effective forward, you should be making an impact on the offensive end of the field at much better numbers than those. Hitting one shot on goal every three halves is not a recipe for success.
It has been the case on multiple recent occasions that players who have been performing strongly with their club teams have been denied National Team call ups by Klinsmann, much to the angst of the fans and confusion of the journalists who try to make heads or tails of the often bewildering coach. Gomez was annihilating Mexican defenses and Kljestan was an integral part of a title winning team that earned a shot at the UEFA Champions League. Gomez's demons were exorcised months ago, and Kljestan has likewise seen a reversal of fortunes with this announcement.
These players have been a testament to Klinsmann's willingness to accept club success at face value, and to give them a shot on the National Team. It may have taken awhile, especially in the case of Kljestan, but the calls came. Shockingly, it's the same case with Eddie Johnson who has been an exceptional goal scorer with Seattle this season. There is no conspiracy here, and there probably is not even a grudge of some sort that may relate to a possible bone headed tweet from Altidore after Klinsmann criticised the forward's effort. It's simply trying to find the right players for the right games.
It didn't slip under the radar, but alarm claxons have not been ringing about Chris Wondolowski's exclusion from the roster, even though he too leads a league in scoring. He is coming close to breaking the MLS single season scoring record, has been exceptional this season and last, yet he has not shown enough in National Team camps to be given a shot at a higher stage. That's just the way it is sometimes, and that's the way it is appearing to be for Altidore as well.
The system employed at AZ benefits Altidore because he is the focus of the attack, and it also helps that Dutch defense is not up to snuff lately. His goals have been pictures of class, his movement off the ball has been great, but he works within a system that utilizes him the way he needs to be utilized. Klinsmann has too many other players worth considering to make Altidore the focal point, and as a result, Altidore slips down the pecking order because he either cannot, or simply has not, adjusted.
Perhaps this is the swift kick in the rear that Altidore has shown to sometimes need in order to get going. For too long he has been loafing around on the field wearing a U.S. jersey, seemingly held unaccountable for not showing up to play except on rare occasions. There are plenty of other players who have been guilty of the same thing for one or two games, but few outside of Altidore have been allowed to be unproductive in their position for so long.
Altidore has been outscored by Gomez, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan in 2012. That is not a bad thing, all three of those players are perfectly capable of finding the back of the net. But consider this: Altidore has the same number of goals as Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Carlos Bocanegra, Ricardo Clark and goal machines Michael Orozco and Graham Zusi.
Something's not right there, and though it obviously doesn't tell the whole story, this is the reason why Altidore has been left off the roster. Even though he's playing great for AZ, he has not played great for the National Team when given the same opportunities. Because of that, he is not getting looked over, disrespected, insulted, or screwed by Klinsmann. This is the difference between his case now, and the cases of Gomez and Kljestan. Those players were performing well with no National Team contact and earned a call up, while Altidore lost his call up because of continuous subpar performances for his country.
This is what's fair, and Klinsmann should be lauded for not keeping players around just because, even though they are regulars on the team. At least that's the case here- tackling the Maurice Edu situation will require an entirely different article.