For Toronto FC supporters, Jozy Altidore injury news rates as “concerning” more than “fall over alarming.” Major League Soccer’s campaign is long and winding, and the playoff format is overly forgiving, if we are being honest. The well-paid young striker has plenty of season still ahead.
But for U.S. Soccer supporters, this latest Altidore injury setback leaves a bigger imprint of worry lines. In the short-term, he won’t be around for road friendlies in June against the Netherlands and Germany, matches that were going to be toughies, anyway. It certainly won’t help being without your best striker, a strong one who can be a handful for defenders even on days of lesser sharpness – so long as he isn’t going all sailor mouth on some poor referee, that is.
More worrisome still: We don’t know if Altidore can get healthy and (even more problematic) game-fit before CONCACAF Gold Cup matches that begin in less than six weeks. That Confederations Cup spot in 2017 is at stake at the Gold Cup, and U.S. Head Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made no secret that he badly covets that spot.
In the bigger picture, a hamstring strain – the same injury, although on the other leg – that will keep Altidore sidelined for 4-5 weeks exposes depth issues. It’s an increasingly sore spot for a fourth-year manager who is being compensated handsomely to fill such holes in the program, with questions sure to arrive more regularly now on whether Klinsmann is doing enough to advance the depth issues.
No national team can replace a “great;” you just cannot change out a Leo Messi, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic or a Luis Suarez like-for-like. But the better teams are deep enough to replace a “good,” and that’s what we have in the 25-year-old Altidore.
The problem is that the candidates to play striker over the coming weeks fall into one of two categories: unproven at highest level or ill-suited for that highest position on the field. (Not that Klinsmann has a problem playing his men out of position, as we have seen.)
We have been here before, of course, and rather notoriously. That exacerbates the problem for Klinsmann, because Altidore’s situation reminds everyone of what is easily the manager’s most controversial roster choice. When Altidore fell to the hamstring injury last summer in Brazil, no suitable replacement was in country. Landon Donovan certainly isn’t a target striker, but having his experience and talent on hand could have provided further attacking options, at the least. Or have we all beaten that dead horse enough just yet?
Either way, here we are again, still scanning the talent pool for a suitable sub for Altidore. Those of sunny disposition will say this is “opportunity” for someone to make a move – which is what everyone says in the lack of a more obvious and suitable solution.
The most obvious “opportunity” belongs to Aron Johannsson, 24, who rebounded from injury this year to cross the finish line with a flourish. Johannsson finished with four goals in three matches as Alkmaar rallied late to place third in the Dutch Eredivisie and secure a Europa League berth. That’s big doings for a small club. In fact, AZ entered the final weekend tied with Feyenoord for that third spot; Johannsson’s two goals (including a full bicycle) and one assist was huge in a 4-1 win over Excelsior. So he isn’t just scoring, he is scoring important goals.
“It’s been a really tough season for me, but the last four games or five games have been really good and I’m finding my old form again,” he told U.S. Soccer earlier this week. “I’m back into scoring goals and playing good soccer. I feel like I’ve come back and proven myself again and hopefully this will just continue with me when I go into the national team games.”
Juan Agudelo is playing well for New England, doing his part for a Revs team that has lost just twice in 11 matches. He has three goals this year alongside Charlie Davies, who has four goals and just may be elbowing his way back into this conversation. Davies keeps getting closer and closer to the player he was back in 2009, but he’s still squarely in the “show us” stage.
Agudelo got back into the “nats” picture in a big way with a goal in San Antonio against Mexico, his first U.S. appearance in more than two years. Still, the bigger picture sees Agudelo with three goals while earning 19 U.S. caps, so he has yet to check the box under “prolific.”
Somewhere along the depth chart is the Galaxy’s Gyasi Zardes, who has shown flashes of “bright future” here and there. Then again, Zardes made his international debut less than four months ago. And he seems better as a second striker, running off of someone like … well, like Altidore.
Jordan Morris certainly opened some eyes with a goal last month against Mexico. Physically, he looks fierce. But Morris is undeniably still raw, with far less experience than even young Zardes.
From there we get to the fringe candidates, guys like Chris Wondolowski, whose real value is in leadership and contagious professionalism. Besides, if “steeling” young men for the future is any part of the summer priority, then a 32-year old who has never been a first-choice international can play only the smallest of parts.
Julian Green, anyone? Anyone? Given Klinsmann’s history of coddling the German-American attacker, he’ll be part of the summer mix. Whether Green can be anything close to a solution this summer is a much bigger question mark (especially since he’s more of a wide man than a central, target type).
Bobby Wood is more of a target man. But he plays for a team that even the best of U.S. soccer supporters probably has not heard of (FC Erzgebirge Aue in 2.Bundesliga), and he has yet to make a big mark on the program.
Then there is Clint Dempsey, who can certainly fill the striker role. His instincts and finishing near goal are more than adequate, and he is absolutely terrorizing MLS defenses these days, now with a goal or assist in the last 10 Sounders matches in which he has participated. That is flat out getting the business done.
But when Dempsey is positioned as highest man on the field, team play can suffer because his game is more about freelancing, drifting back into the midfield and such. He won’t do as much chasing and harassing from that highest attacking position, not as many of the little things that mean opposition center backs are in for a miserable day. All of which is why Dempsey has rarely performed in that more advanced role, although he’s clearly the man as a second striker.
Maybe Altidore can get healthy, fit and sharp before the Gold Cup opener on July 7. And rules allow teams to make roster changes after the first round, so he could perhaps join at that point. If not, we’ll have more to talk about – even if the conversations won’t always be pleasant.
Editor’s note: Steve Davis writes a weekly column for World Soccer Talk. He shares his thoughts and opinions on US and MLS soccer topics every Wednesday, as well as news reports throughout the week. You can follow Steve on Twitter at @stevedavis90. Plus, read Steve’s other columns on World Soccer Talk.
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