When news began leaking out yesterday morning that Jozy Altidore was left off the United States team for their upcoming World Cup qualifiers, American fans began to worry. By the time 3 p.m. ET rolled around and Jurgen Klinsmann made it official, releasing a 24-man roster that did not include Altidore, worry turned to apoplectic rage.
Altidore is undoubtedly the Americans' most talented striker and with more goals than any other U.S. striker since Brian McBride, he ranks 10th on the all-time U.S. goal scoring list. Amazingly, he has done that all at the age of 22 and is in the midst of a career year for AZ Alkmaar, scoring eight times in as many Eredivisie matches to lead the league.
So how does Altidore get left off a U.S. team criminally short on strikers? By not picking up on 14 months of hints, pushing and prodding from Klinsmann that above all, he needed to work.
Right from the start, Klinsmann gave Altidore chance after chance to fit into his national team even when the striker's effort didn't match that of his teammates. That he scored just one goal for the U.S. -- a penalty kick at that -- since the 2011 Gold Cup didn't deter Klinsmann. Neither did his one assist or even the scant few chances he created.
It was the lack of work that Klinsmann lamented and what he saw as the root of Altidore's lack of production. Yet there was Altidore on each roster. For 14 months, Klinsmann continued to call the striker in, but his patience waned with each match.
After starting in his first seven call-ups under Klinsmann without much to show for it, Altidore came into the May-June camp out of shape following a layoff after the club season, which Klinsmann expressed disappointment in. While the U.S. played friendlies, Altidore worked to get into shape in training, but even then Klinsmann was dismayed that it took so long to get fit again.
Altidore has started just once since his run of seven straight starts came to an end in February, and that one start was an unmitigated disaster. The U.S. went to Kingston and were wiped clean by Jamaica. While Altidore was always going to struggle in front of a shambolic midfield, his play, or lack thereof, was shocking.
Four days later, Altidore was back on the bench. He came in for the final 10 minutes and gave the ball away several times in a time when his number one job was to help the U.S. keep the ball.
A massively disappointing first 14 months under Klinsmann had come to an end.
Klinsmann finally spoke publicly about his problems with Altidore in an interview with Doug McIntyre two weeks ago, emphasizing that he has not gotten the work from the striker that he has asked for. The signs were there and the timing of an interview lauding the hard work that keyed Altidore's career revival at AZ came out last week without a single word about his play for the U.S. was another indication that things with the national team were not rosy.
It was becoming increasingly clear that Altidore was running out of chances. Yesterday, Klinsmann finally made his move. Altidore was staying home.
I communicated to Jozy I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months. I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason he’s not coming in is mainly because of his performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training, and also certain things that went on through the May-June camp.
Maybe Klinsmann is sending a message to Altidore, but he isn't cutting off his nose to spite his face because he's not dropping a good national team player. At least not one who has been good recently.
In 12 matches for Klinsmann, Altidore has failed to pressure the ball with any consistency, create chances or make the runs off the ball to free up teammates. And then there is that one measly goal on a penalty, and a lone assist to boot.
Amazingly, this has all come while Altidore is in fine form for AZ. But that fine form didn't keep him from turning in a pair of listless performances against Jamaica. Altidore's 15 goals for AZ last season didn't help him in Klinsmann's first nine months either. So while Altidore's club form is all well and good, there is absolutely no evidence that good form in the Eredivisie is an indicator that he will play well for the U.S.
The Eredivisie features some amazingly exciting play, but part of that is a result of lackadaisical defending. Altidore has feasted upon on those defense and he has done so without working hard for 90 minutes because, frankly, few players in the Eredivisie do.
Klinsmann expected Altidore to put in maximum effort for 90 minutes, though. And even if Altidore wanted to put in the work Klinsmann expects of him, he can't do it because he doesn't do it regularly for his club and isn't fit enough to reach Klinsmann's expectation.
Some have suggested that Klinsmann change the way the team plays, but he is committed to his proactive approach and his commitment is admirable. He has made unpopular choices and stuck by his plan even when the results did not go his way.
On the day he was hired, Klinsmann emphasized that his U.S. team would be very proactive and he has been true to his word. He has continued to push a possession-oriented system that controls tempo of matches and presses opponents for 90 minutes, when successful and otherwise.
Such play be done by pressing the opposing team, from high up the field all the way through the midfield because winning the ball back quickly is as important keeping it. It also requires hard work with the ball, running off of it to make yourself available and making smart runs to create space for other players. With or without the ball, Klinsmann calls for 90 minutes of constant movement and work.
Regardless of one's opinion on Klinsmann's tenure and tactics, a player who cannot or will not put in the effort that is being demanded of everyone else on the team should not change that. And unless a manager asking a player to work as hard as his 10 teammates for 90 minutes, Klinsmann has the high ground.
Nobody could accuse Klinsmann of not giving Altidore enough chances. He gave the striker 14 months worth of them. Altidore's omission was not capricious, but the continuation of a contentious relationship in which Klinsmann asked for one thing -- work. Altidore didn't.