Friday, April 3, 2009
AP Photo/ Charles Rex Arbogast
Jozy Altidore had his coming out party Wednesday night against Trinidad and Tobago in a World Cup qualifier, registering a hat trick in the United States’ 3-0 victory. The win came days after Altidore scored in a 2-2 tie against El Salvador. Altidore’s emergence has a huge effect on the national team.
While not as documented as another teen soccer sensation, Freddy Adu, U.S. soccer fans have had their eyes on Altidore for quite some time, and he has been considered one of the future stars for the men’s national team. At 16-years-old, he was the youngest player to score in the MLS playoffs, when he did so as a member of Red Bull New York. In the summer of 2008, he was transferred to Villarreal of Spain’s La Liga for an MLS record transfer fee of approximately $10 million. He competed for the United States in the 2008 summer Olympics and scored a goal against the Netherlands. Since then, Villarreal loaned Altidore to Xerez of Spain’s Segunda División in order to give the young player increased minutes and continue to adapt to Spanish culture, however it has not worked out so far as Altidore has yet to dress for the club. U.S. men’s national team head coach Bob Bradley still called him up for the team’s two qualifiers against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago, even though Bradley is notorious for wanting his players to receive consistent minutes and Xerez’s coach’s insistence that Altidore will continue to sit if he misses time for national team duty.
As of late, Bradley has gone with Brian Ching as the team’s lone forward. Ching is excellent at collecting the ball, holding off defenders, and then distributing it. However, he is not the most efficient goal scorer, which is what a forward is judged on, especially when he is the only striker in the starting lineup. He has played well, but his lack of goal production has had fans clamoring for Altidore to take over. Saturday, down 2-0, Bradley opted to sub in Altidore in the match’s 61 minute and keep Ching in, hoping the two forwards would generate the offense needed to make a comeback. The move paid off, as Altidore scored in the 77 minute, and the team eventually came back to tie the game and earn an away point in qualifying. Altidore’s performance earned him a start against Trinidad and Tobago alongside Ching, and he didn’t disappoint.
Starting two forwards works better for the U.S., especially given the different talents of Altidore and Ching. While Ching uses his strength to hold off defenders and distribute, Altidore uses his size and athleticism to get open and attack the defenders. The two can work off of each other, which opens up the field, keeps the defense honest, and creates more attacking opportunities, rather than having the defense focus on one striker and stalling the offense.
In order to slide Altidore into the starting lineup, someone needed to be taken off the pitch. Bradley opted to remove left back Heath Pearce, who was removed for Altidore in the El Salvador game. Without Pearce, Bradley moved left midfielder DaMarcus Beasley into the left fullback spot. While not a natural defender, his defensive abilities are solid and his pace could be beneficial in leading the attack from the defensive end into the opposing teams half. Beasley played much better against Trinidad and Tobago than he did against El Salvador, and his attacking abilities helps make the defense much more of a threat to start the offense. He and right fullback Frankie Hejduk make good runs from the back to help the midfielders on the flanks push the ball. Coupled with center back Oguchi Onyewu, who stands at 6’4” and moves forward on set pieces to try and get a header on net, the defense has become much more capable of getting the offense going, which previously was a concern. Hejduk may be replaced when former starter Steve Cherundolo comes back from an injury, but he makes a compelling case. In the future, if Marvell Wynne can polish his touch on the ball, his speed could be very dangerous coming out of the back and keep the defense involved in developing the attack.
Altidore’s start also had an impact on the midfield. Because there were two forwards, Landon Donovan moved over from a central attacking midfield role to the left winger in place of Beasley. This allowed him to go at the defenders, attacking them with the ball, as well as cut the ball into the middle onto his dominant, right foot, making for better shots, passes, and crosses. Donovan assisted on all three of Altidore’s goals.
Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley remained at right wing and center midfield, respectively. Defensive minded Pablo Mastroeni replaced the struggling Sacha Kljestan as the other center midfielder, but going forward, expect Kljestan to earn his spot back, as again, he bolsters the attack and has formed a good playing relationship with Bradley.
Altidore has made things happen. A once offensively challenged U.S. squad has now been infused with new, young life. Inserting Altidore and shifting others around has created a squad that can attack from any part of the field, keeping the defense on its toes, opening up the field which allows creative players like Altidore, Donovan, and Dempsey more freedom.
It is only one game, not against prime opposition, and the lineup changes aren’t etched in stone, but the result and play was promising. If nothing else, Altidore proved he belongs on the national team, and that it’s his time to start.
Hopefully, Villarreal and Xerez were watching.
Highlights from Wednesday night's U.S. match against Trinidad and Tobago. Video from U.S. soccer's channel on Youtube.
Second photo credit: AP Photo/ Mark Humphrey