There is no more polarizing player on the USMNT than striker Jozy Altidore. From my perspective the breakdown is as follows: the American Outlaws, people that are primarily only fans of the U.S. National Team, and MLS fans, all love him. Fans that follow the European leagues, and have seen some world class strikers, are very underwhelmed by him.
One thing is clear though, according to U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann, Altidore is the team’s first choice striker whether he’s on form or not. So with Altidore now ruled out for 4-5 weeks with a hamstring injury, which will keep him out of friendlies vs. the Netherland and Germany as well as possibly the group stage of the Gold Cup, this could be a blessing in disguise for the U.S.
The U.S. has a long history of struggling to develop strikers that can compete on the international level. The last two strikers to score goals for the U.S. at the World Cup were Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, both of whom spent pretty much their entire careers not playing striker. With Altidore now out, the U.S. has a tremendous opportunity to let guys like Aron Johannsson or Jordan Morris play with the first team and see how they do.
We just came off a year of experimenting in several different friendlies and seeing what many of the players in the U.S. talent pool can do. The problem with that is you only learn so much from those experiments in those friendlies. Sure it’s great that Jordan Morris can link up well with Lee Nguyen, but ultimately that doesn’t mean anything because Jordan Morris and Lee Nguyen will never be on the field at the same time in a meaningful game (and if they are, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong).
What is important is seeing how players like Morris or Johannsson fit into the team and link up with the actual first team players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley. Due to the U.S. roster being spread out between Europe and the MLS, and the different schedules between those leagues, the U.S. rarely ever gets to play friendlies where they have their full team together and can do those things.
When Altidore got hurt during the 2014 World Cup, Klinsmann had no backup plan. In the game against Ghana, Altidore was replaced by Johannsson who was largely ineffective, a lot of which can be attributed to Johannsson having rarely played with the top U.S. players. Since the World Cup offers no time to experiment, Klinsmann replaced Altidore with Clint Dempsey for the remainder of the tournament, allowing the U.S. to play as a more cohesive unit.
Since the World Cup, the U.S. has yet to have their full first team available for a match. That was set to change when the squad would travel to Europe in June to take on the Netherlands and Germany, two matches set up to test and challenge the U.S..
While the games in Europe ultimately don’t matter, they are still a very good litmus test as to where the U.S. stands internationally (though not the best as both the Dutch and German teams will probably not be fielding their A squads, though Germany’s B team would be many other countries A team). With only so many chances to get your full first team together for a game, it only seems natural that when it finally does happen, Klinsmann would select his best XI to play in those games. There’s a 99.9 percent chance Jozy Altidore would be getting the start; and rightfully so as you still need to develop chemistry and form between your top players. Sure, another striker may come on late in the game, but that presents the same issues as playing in a friendly with an incomplete squad, he’d be playing with other subs, not the starters.
Altidore’s injury now gives Klinsmann the chance to test his other strikers out against quality opponents with the rest of his first team in a low risk setting where the results don’t matter. After those two games, Klinsmann can continue to test them out in a competitive environment, the Gold Cup group stages where the results matter, but the U.S. should still be able to navigate through regardless of who their striker is.
If there was ever a good time for a team to suffer an injury to a top player, the U.S. hit the jackpot. Altidore is expected to miss 4-5 weeks, the Gold Cup begins in six weeks. Gold Cup rules allow for roster changes to be made after the Group Stage, so if Altidore needs an extra week to be ready the U.S. can fill his roster spot and then have him back in time for the knockout rounds.