Earlier this year it was Brek Shea and Timothy Chandler, now it's Jozy Altidore.
How much room is there in Jurgen Klinsmann’s doghouse?
Though none of these are similar situations, they’ve been handled the same way publicly by Klinsmann, which is to say, publicly. Whereas predecessor Bob Bradley would only reluctantly, if at all, reveal the reasons for dropping a player, Klinsmann has been almost eager to let the world know.
Truth be told, the Bradley Way drove fans and journalists crazy, yet was in perfect sync with his personal beliefs that the vast majority of issues regarding the national team should remain in-house. The default answer was something along the lines of, “We think the players we picked fit our needs better,” and while Klinsmann uses that tactic as well, he’s not been reluctant to publicly take on cases such as Chandler, who turned down Bradley for the 2011 Gold Cup and followed suit six months ago, or speak bluntly about Altidore’s performance and, indirectly, his commitment.
When Altidore reported late and in relatively poor shape to a 10-day training camp in late May, Klinsmann took note. Acknowledging that his club, AZ Alkmaaar, had flouted FIFA regulations by not releasing him earlier during the European offseason, Klinsmann still implied concerns about his conditioning. His recent comments about Altidore “doing more” clearly referred to both game performances and training sessions.
Bradley would also keep quiet, most of the time, about players who had declined invitations from U.S. Soccer or players of interest who had yet to be officially summoned. An interesting tidbit from an interview with Jose Torres two months ago revealed the federation had contacted him a year before his debut for the national team to recruit him as an Olympic callup.
Torres admitted he’d declined the invitation to represent the USA in the 2008 Olympic Games because he was hoping to be called by Mexico. At the time, Bradley and U.S. Soccer were very tight-lipped regarding Torres, which jibed with the coach’s belief a player not in the picture, for whatever reason, wasn’t a relevant topic. When Torres did accept an invite in 2009, Bradley answered questions about him.
Much of the speculation regarding Chandler swirls around the thought he’s waiting to be invited by Germany, and regardless of the reasons, Klinsmann was brutally clear he’s out until he formally declares his commitment to the USA. The situations are different, since Chandler did wear the U.S. jersey before and after the Gold Cup for both coaches, which only adds to the befuddlement regarding his mindset. Maybe he’s just a flake, but for all intents and purposes regarding the USA, he’s irrelevant.
The omission of Altidore took on greater importance Tuesday with the news Shea and Landon Donovan would be sidelined by injuries for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, the first of which is Friday against Antigua & Barbuda. Regardless of the competition, Altidore’s success for AZ hasn’t translated to the national team under Klinsmann, and one likely cause is a radical difference in the roles he’s asked to play.
For AZ, he plays off the shoulder of a defender, and either runs onto balls played into spaces behind the back line, or receives passes played to his feet while he’s on the move, either laterally across the goalmouth or diagonally into the penalty area. For the U.S., he’s often asked to play with his back to goal, serving as a rebound wall rather than as a true striker tasked with looking for the shot every time he gets the ball within range, and then seeking out a pass if necessary.
For whatever reason, he’s adapted quickly to the style and tempo played by AZ, where he trains with the same players in the same system every day and the openness of play better suits his skill set. The international game is faster and requires more work defensively and off the ball, which aren’t among his major attributes.
As Klinsmann has himself admitted, he’s still tinkering with the U.S. style, and there has yet to emerge patterns of play and tempo the majority of players feel comfortable with. It varies from game to game, and sometimes within a game, depending on which midfielders are in the lineup and influencing the play. Very different players such as Torres and Michael Bradley are trying to find common ground within the system.
Altidore is criticized for many facets of his U.S. play, one being his “failure” to win balls in the air. Klinsmann cited the prowess in this area as contributing factors for the inclusions of Alan Gordon and Eddie Johnson. But any player told to win balls in the air must either control them himself or knock them to a teammate, and more than a few times Altidore has put balls down into no-man’s land, with no teammates in support, or looked for a ball to be played behind the opponent’s back line only to drift offside when a midfielder took an extra touch rather than play it earlier, a la AZ. He’s not fitting in.
He’s also cited as “lazy,” which anybody who remembers him storming up the right flank at the 2010 World Cup in stoppage time against Algeria to center a ball Clint Dempsey smashed into the goalkeeper’s chest would dispute. He’s certainly not fast, yet as the remarkable slalom run and goal he scored for AZ a week and a half ago confirms, he can move fast enough given the right situation.
But the laziness Klinsmann abhors and apparently sees in Altidore is that of application and temperament, of commitment to the cause regardless how it affects him personally. Right or wrong, the coach’s verdict is in, and one of the few young Americans scoring goals consistently for his club is out.