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Nov 15, 2013

Altidore backed as Lichaj seeks more chances

GLASGOW -- As Jozy Altidore sat in the United States locker room preparing to face Scotland, his mobile phone shot off a quick buzz.

It was a message from his head coach at Sunderland, Gustavo Poyet, informing him he would be in attendance at Hampden Park. Midway through the first half of the goalless draw, as the cameras trained themselves on Poyet, a beaming smile spread across his face.

Friday night saw Sunderland’s two main striking options -- Altidore and Steven Fletcher -- face off on opposite sides. In the days and weeks before the game, the Scot has edged ahead of the American in the pecking order at club level and, in truth, nothing is likely to have changed based on Friday’s game.

Operating alone up front is a role into which Fletcher fits comfortably, as he showed for Scotland. By contrast, Altidore appears to thrive most with a partner.

At Hampden, his play improved significantly following the second-half introduction of Aron Johansson, who provided an exciting cameo in an otherwise drab affair.

The AZ Alkmaar man showed the youngster’s composure in possession and took up a good position to create arguably the best chance of the game after a pull-back from fellow substitute, Brek Shea.

- Carlisle: U.S. player grades

After the game, when asked which system he prefers, Altidore’s response was simple: "I just want to play," he said with a relaxed grin on his face. "For me, the preference is being in the team first."

At the international level, Altidore is most definitely achieving that goal. However, on a club front, his place is less secure. Though, despite being benched by Poyet against Manchester City, Altidore spoke positively of the new boss at the Stadium of Light:

"Gus has been great. We’ve actually been on the same page on a lot of things. It’s all about patience, it’s a different style of football. I’m there (at Sunderland) for four years, not one year."

As might be expected for such an important cog in the national team wheel, conjecture about Altidore’s club form this season has been rife. When asked for his opinion, though, U.S. men's national team head coach Jürgen Klinsmann chose not to discuss his situation on Wearside in depth, opting instead to focus on what he sees from the 24-year-old on national team duty:

“I want to see his energy. I want to see the way he creates himself chances. I want to see how he occupies the two centre-backs and I want to see how he connects with his teammates, and if that is all there, it’s all good. Sooner or later, he will score the goals for Sunderland. I’m not worried about that.”

In contrast to the position of strength held by Altidore, those vying for the role of right-back continue to jockey for position.

Brad Evans began the night as the man in possession and was troubled at times by Craig Conway. Despite that, with Klinsmann confirming that he views Geoff Cameron as a central defender, the Seattle player remains the first choice.

"Behind Brad there is some space," Klinsmann said after the game. "We try different people out there. Geoff, as you mentioned, plays that role, Michael Orozco can play (there). We will see in the next couple of months what happens with Steve Cherundolo."

Also in the mix is Eric Lichaj, who replaced Evans in the second half to win his first cap since 2011. Now that he is back in the fold, the Nottingham Forest man is seeking another chance against Austria on Tuesday and is relishing the opportunity to challenge Evans for a starting place, as the countdown continues to next summer in Brazil.

“He’s obviously got the USA qualified with many of these guys, which I didn’t get a chance to do," Lichaj said. “In the long run, everyone is trying to get to the World Cup and trying to do well in the World Cup. If it’s competition for places it just ups people’s games, I think."