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"Having an argument with myself down Elizabeth Street ..." -- Jens Lekman, "Argument with Myself."
Let's begin this post with two statements of fact, which cannot be argued:
a) Sunday Jozy Altidore scored his 24th goal this season for AZ -- a record for Americans in Europe.
b) Altidore hasn't scored for the U.S. National Team since Nov. 15, 2011.
Are statements a and b related? Would they fall into separate Venn diagrams labeled 'club' and 'country'? Is it unfair to mention statement b in light of statement a?
Considering Landon Donovan is out channeling his inner Lance Johnson and surfing the waves of Southeast Asia, this Altidore conundrum takes center stage as our USMNT straw man argument of the moment. (Unless you are a certain member of the American soccer media, because then Jozy is the G.O.A.T. and statement b occurs in a different plane of reality.)
Regardless of whether or not it's easier to score in the Dutch Eredivisie than on Taylor Swift after a bad breakup and two two glasses of Merlot, Altidore's achievement deserves to be celebrated.
Try to forget the last two players to lead the Dutch top flight in scoring are Bas Drost and Björn Vleminckx, the year before that is was Luis Suarez and he's pret-tay, pret-tay good at soccer, isn't he? You can joke about infamous Middlesbrough flop Afonso Alves, but his former teammate at Heerenveen Michael Bradley has been effective in Germany, England and now Italy since leaving the Eredivisie.
Admittedly, Altidore piling up 24 goals (16 in the league) this season for AZ isn't doing do in 1991 Serie A, but that's beside the point.
Where the ex-New York Red Bull's performance and current form gets muddled is when we try to extrapolate it toward what it means to the U.S. National Team.
Odds are if you're American and even if you live, breath and sleep soccer you probably don't give two guilders about what's happening in the Eredivisie. On the other hand, you're very concerned about the U.S. team which is already 0-1-0 in the final stage of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying. Altidore scored four goals in 2010 World Cup Qualifying and it would be, ya know, pretty good if he rediscovered that form for Jurgen Klinsmann, right?
Problem is, the role Altidore plays at AZ isn't all that much the same was what the German coach expects of him in the U.S. shirt.
This season AZ has played almost exclusively a "traditional" Dutch 4-3-3 formation. Altidore is flanked by a pair of true wingers (Maarten Martens, Johann Berg Gudmundsson, Roy Beerens, etc.), leaving his job to simply finish. It's not all crosses flung into the box, either, and only two of his 16 league goals are from headers. Altidore is getting service from the AZ midfield, including Adam Maher and Viktor Elm.
However you look at it, Altidore at AZ is the focal point -- the tip of the spear as it were -- of the team's attack.
For the U.S. under Klinsmann?
Well ... the German is fond of a three-man midfield, so there's that. In the most recent U.S. game, the 2-1 loss away to Honduras last month, Altidore didn't see much of the ball, nor did Bradley, Danny Williams and Jermaine Jones create many chances. Herculez Gomez (seemingly the first choice U.S. striker at the moment) and Clint Dempsey played advanced roles behind Altidore. It didn't help, either, the American attack got next to zero help from outside backs Fabian Johnson or Timmy Chandler vs. Honduras.
The loss to Honduras was the first match started by Altidore in qualifying since the 2-1 defeat at Jamaica last September, playing alongside Terrance Boyd. (Altidore was subsequently dropped by Klinsmann for the final two qualifiers in 2012, mind.)
Maybe talking this much about formations is in a sense, pointless, because whomever Klinsmann trots out into the starting XI it's not as if the U.S. is piling up goals. If there's any conclusion to draw, so long as the German coach sticks with a three-man midfield, lacking a clear creative playmaker, the front line guys are going to have to make the most of their limited chances or create their own. Altidore is going to have to drop a lot deeper than his does in a typical Dutch league game to see the ball.
Whatever your opinion of Altidore, it's fair to say he's shown in 53 international appearances whomever he plays with in the team is a big factor in his success rate. That said, it's not all the system's fault Altidore has showed next to nothing for well over a year in games for the U.S. At some point he has to take some ownership for a 16-month international goal drought.
At the same time, the U.S. offensive gameplan has become stagnant in recent months regardless of the team Klinsmann selects. Should he consider changing his gameplan to cater more to the skills of Altidore? Granted aside from youngster Josh Gatt it's not as if the U.S. has a ton of true wingers at its disposal and installing Altidore as a lone front man would minimize the impact of Dempsey and Gomez.
Or is Altidore, like many strikers in the history of soccer, more a product of the system he plays in, rather than his individual skills? A famous example is Michael Owen not being able to evolve and adapt his game from the traditional English longball system.
It's a strange conundrum, albeit not one that's unique to the United States. This is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison but Bundesliga joint top-scorer Stefan Kießling can't find a way into Joachim Loew's German set up.
And again, it's a bit of a straw man argument since ultimately club form and country form are two different sets of encyclopedias.
It's something that at least needs to be at least considered with the U.S. hosting Costa Rica at Dick's Sporting Good's Park in Colorado in less than three weeks time. Altidore bottling up whatever he's doing in the Netherlands and bringing it to the Western Hemisphere can only help this tricky qualifying campaign for the U.S. go down a little smoother.
Your move, Jurgen ...