European soccer fans and pundits have a luxury we Americans do not. When followers of these more established futbol nations piss and moan that a particular player doesn’t merit a place in the starting national XI, there are nearly always viable alternatives. Such is the size and quality of the player pool. You don’t like Lukas Podolski? Plug in Mario Gomez. Think John Terry’s over the hill? Opt for Phil Jones.
I enjoy the soccer guys at SI, especially the work of Grant Wahl, but I was listening to their Soccer Roundtable podcast for Oct. 19, and I must protest their incomplete, irrational critique of both U.S. striker Jozy Altidore and, by extension, new coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Steve Davis, Wahl and John Godfrey were trotting out the now-familiar complaint that Altidore does not merit starts for the USMNT. This naturally led to the idea of who exactly should take his place. Their ideas, offered as mere afterthoughts: Chris Wondolowski, Hercules Gomez and Justin Braun.
Are you kidding me? I mean, at some point, any criticism of starting Altidore must be accompanied by a reasonable alternative. These three are simply too fanciful to be taken seriously. I’m all for giving young guys a chance to impress, but you honestly want to plug in Justin Braun v. France? Honduras, perhaps. At home. But not against a top-flight opponent, on the road.
I’ll go further: If you want to judge Jozy Altidore, first play him in the upcoming friendlies against France and Slovenia alongside Clint Dempsey, or Juan Agudelo, or anyone. Then make the call. You simply cannot fairly judge a striker by how he plays running alone in a 4-5-1, on the road, against an opponent of quality. And in the case you should judge him harshly, there must be someone worth plugging into his place, which, considering the American player pool, is an extremely dicey exercise.
Ever since the 2010 World Cup, when Altidore played quite well (as a 19-year-old!), thereby eliciting interest from clubs all over Europe, followers of U.S. soccer have been waiting for this guy to blossom. It hasn’t happened on the club level and much hew & cry has accompanied his admittedly spotty performances for the USA.
But people just seem way too eager to give up on this guy.
First Jozy was not a good choice because he wasn’t getting first-team run at Hull, or Villareal. Now that he’s getting that run at AZ Alkmaar, in Holland, and scoring (7 goals in 11 appearances), he’s derided for not scoring or looking “dangerous enough” for the U.S. — the SI Roundtable specifically cited his lackluster performance when running alone up front against Belgium and its accomplished central defender, Vincent Kompany of Manchester City.
Lookit, Jozy is the best striker the Americans have. Full stop. He is 21 years old for chrissakes and, somehow, has convinced three quality European clubs that he has the goods. I’ll take my chances with him, in any game that matters, until we find someone better.
Why Klinsi’s even playing one striker in any friendly is a bit nutty, if you asked me. What sort of result is he seeking? What’s he looking to protect? This is not exactly the free-wheeling, attacking approach he promised. He deserves some questioning on that, not for starting Altidore.
Will Jozy ever turn himself into a world-class striker? Well, I don’t know. But here are two things I do know: the U.S. has never produced a world-class striker (Brian McBride was the closest we’ve come), so waiting around for Jozy to become one seems a bit unrealistic and unfair. I also know that Wondolowski, Gomez and Braun have not earned a place ahead of him — in Braun’s case, the guy has never even been capped. You can’t simply pluck guys who’ve been scoring on the club-level and expect them to score in top-flight international play, and that goes double (triple?) when they’re plucked from MLS. Brek Shea is the exception to the rule, one of the few who’ve come straight from MLS and immediately proved ready to do anything at this level, much less worry the likes of Vincent Kompany.
If the World Cup started tomorrow, I’d play Altidore and Dempsey together up front. Shea’s emergence at left midfield allows Deuce to play there. If Altidore were sacrificed, I’d play Agudelo there, next to Clint. Actually, if it were World Cup group play, where you might reasonably play for a “result”, the 4-5-1 could be justified, and even then, Jozy’d be the best choice, because there are no better choices. Not yet.