Is Jozy Altidore's USMNT starting spot at risk?
The strange thing about Jozy Altidore's hamstring injury suffered in the first half hour of the World Cup campaign for the United States is that it reset the clock on something that may be coming sooner rather than later -- that something being Altidore's removal as guaranteed starter in the national team lineup. Eventually, new options will make themselves worthy of a look, and as long as Altidore struggles to score goals, his position is in jeopardy.
The stranger thing about the possibility that Altidore might lose his starting spot in Jurgen Klinsmann's lineup is that Altidore is only 24 years old. After playing in two World Cups before the age of 25, this was the age when Altidore was supposed to hit his prime, scoring goals in significant numbers for both club and country. Instead, a disastrous move from the Netherlands to England before last season has all of those high hopes for the striker's future undergoing a drastic adjustment.
Despite the chance to move on from Sunderland this summer and put the Sunderland experience behind him, Altidore chose to stay in England and try it all over again. Perhaps a full year under Gus Poyet will do Altidore some good. After all, it was in part the poor start and strange environment fostered by Paolo Di Canio that soured so much of the American's campaign last year. Showing resolve in his willingness to make it work, rather than running away from adversity, indicates just how much more mature Altidore has become. His struggles in England this time are much different than his long ago loan stint at Hull, a poor period that still dogs him.
If Altidore is going to make it work on Wearside, he'll need more playing time. Through weeks of the English season, Altidore has 30 minutes of play, collected in three substitute appearances. Poyet is using the big American striker as a late-game change of pace, typically when Sunderland is chasing the game.
On the one hand, Poyet using Altidore at all shows some measure of belief in the 24-year-old, in spite of his disappointing 2013-14 season. On the other, Altidore is a part-time player for a team in the bottom half of the Premier League. He hasn't scored this season, and will find doing so difficult with so little time on the field.
Heading into the World Cup, Klinsmann acted as though Altidore's club struggles mattered little to his established place in the USMNT setup. Typically running a one-striker formation, Klinsmann needed Altidore's size and strength up top as a target to make his system work. Criticisms of Klinsmann's roster choices aside, the injury Altidore suffered so early in the Americans' World Cup proved his importance. Without Altidore's center forward presence, the United States found relieving pressure and creating chances more difficult.
If the roster for the team's first post-World Cup friendly against the Czech Republic in Prague on Wednesday is any judge, Klinsmann still sees Altidore as his first choice -- for now. Perhaps the unavailability of Terrence Boyd due to injury forces the German coach's hand, or perhaps Altidore would be on the team regardless, but the only evidence we have is that Altidore is a fixture for Klinsmann whenever healthy. With so much of this particular squad being young and experimental, Altidore sticks out as a veteran among a group of green, raw strikers. In a symbol of Altidore's status, Klinsmann named him captain against the Czech Republic in the absence of Clint Dempsey.
As he is wont to do with some regularity, Klinsmann praised Altidore's decision to challenge himself in England and remain there, despite his poor first Sunderland season. Altidore is not only the lone target forward of any experience available to Klinsmann, he also serves as an example for the head coach's consistent refrain that American players should set out to play at the highest level possible. In that way, he has value beyond what he can do on the field.
Whatever signs exist that Altidore isn't going anywhere anytime soon, Klinsmann is still a man capable of changing directions at any moment. Among the possible reasons Altidore might lose his position, a few have little to do with the striker's goal output for Sunderland.
As he did in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, Klinsmann might simply, and suddenly, decide to alter the way his team plays. Altidore currently occupies an important position on the team because he's the most suitable player for a back-to-goal central forward role (despite this not being the best use of his abilities). Change the formation and remove the need for a target striker, and Altidore's spot could be under threat. He'll need goals, in both jerseys, to justify his position if a style shift happens.
Provided Klinsmann sticks with a system that requires a target forward, Altidore might be the leading choice. But there is certainly a chance some other player emerges from the pack and overtakes the Sunderland man. Boyd is injured and won't pass Altidore in this camp, and none of the forwards called by Klinsmann are ready to carry the load; rather than guarantee Altidore's place, those facts will just delay any switch. If a player in better form than Altidore proves able to do the job, why wouldn't Klinsmann replace Altidore?
The focus of the team called to face the Czechs in Prague is squarely on the new generation of players called in by Klinsmann. These are new players, full of promise and energy, who might play a role in the next cycle for the USMNT. But among the 22 players called in by Klinsmann are several who went to Brazil, and several who played a part in the campaign there.
Altidore is just 24 and yet represents the older guard. He's clinging to his spot, in spite of a lack of goals for his club.
For how long will that be the case?
Jason Davis is a writer from Virginia covering American soccer. He also hosts a daily soccer podcast that covers the beautiful game. Follow him @davisjsn.