Jozy Altidore's resurgence shows how much U.S. can improve
Naturally, the player who's been both brutalized and lionized over the past year was the one who offered one of the more cogent pieces of post-game perspective.
Even after sparking the U.S. to a wild 4-3 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina with a spectacular second-half hat trick, Jozy Altidore understood that the triumphant images from Sarajevo are part of a much, much larger picture.
"It's exciting and I think it shows how far the program has come," he said Wednesday of the Americans' 12-game win streak. "At the same time we understand we still have to raise the bar. We can't afford to make mistakes (like the ones in Bosnia) because in group stages of the World Cup you can't come back from them."
Altidore may be 23 years old, but he's already been through the sort of highs and lows that forge an elder's wisdom. Last fall, while mired in a national team scoring drought that would last more than 18 months, he was dumped from the U.S. roster ahead of a pair of crucial World Cup qualifiers. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann publicly criticized the player's performance both on the field and in training.
Ten months later, of course, Altidore has become indispensable. The new Sunderland signing is the national team's "moneymaker", according to goalkeeper Tim Howard, and has tallied seven goals in his past five internationals. Like many fans who felt fed up with Altidore late last year, Klinsmann now is a believer.
"We see Jozy understanding the demands at this level, to be consistent and always focused. He went through a lot of maturing the last couple years," he told reporters in Bosnia. "The ups and downs are normal. But he really understands when it counts and how he has to be there with his presence. He makes everybody around him a better player."
From exiled to exalted in only 10 months. Coincidentally, this is how long we have until the 2014 World Cup kicks off. So much can happen in that time, and as Altidore suggested following Wednesday's win, plenty needs to.
Altidore's dominant form and the team's 12-game win streak, which is the longest current run in the world and just three short of Spain's record, indicate that both the player and the team now have a genuine understanding of what Klinsmann wants from them. The numbers suggest that they're something close to a finished product. But as Altidore hinted, that's not the case. He's living proof that form can be fickle and difficult to sustain, and he's one of several players who has either surged to the forefront or faded from the picture over the past several months. There are newcomers to integrate, injuries to monitor and pressing tactical questions left unanswered.
While there's no question that the U.S. has made significant progress since that rock-bottom moment in Honduras back in February, Klinsmann will need every one of the next 10 months to find his World Cup formula. The U.S. is playing well, but it's far from ready for Brazil.
The issues start up top, Altidore's resurgence can be traced in part to Klinsmann's decision to pair him with Clint Dempsey (or anyone, for that matter). For too long, Altidore was isolated by formations that either left the U.S. under too much pressure to provide reliable service or that put too much distance between him and his fellow attackers. When Dempsey pushed up closer to the goal, Altidore no longer was a lonely target man with his back to the net. He was integrated into the offense and the goals flowed.
That difference was illustrated again in Bosnia, where Klinsmann started the game with a 4-5-1 that once again left Altidore somewhat stranded. When the U.S. switched to a 4-4-2 in the second half (Altidore played with Eddie Johnson and then Aron Johannsson), it scored four goals.
Has Klinsmann finally determined that Altidore needs a partner to thrive, or will the manager continue to experiment? That's one of several issues now facing the manager. Both Altidore and Dempsey have moved to new clubs in new leagues and they'll be challenged, in different ways, to be at their best by next summer. A 4-4-2 could relegate Johnson to the bench. He's an asset but may not have the midfield chops to excel in a World cup environment. Johannsson showed promise but still is unproven at this level, while it appears that Herculez Gomez -- who's contributions helped get the U.S. to this point -- will have to climb Klinsmann's depth chart once again.
Landon Donovan (speaking of how much things can change in a few months) likely earned back his place on the 'A' team with his Gold Cup performance but, incredibly, hasn't played with Klinsmann's first-choice squad in more than a year. The coach might be tempted to return to a 4-3-3 to get Donovan closer to goal, but the U.S. simply hasn't played well in that alignment. Altidore is a given if Klinsmann sticks with two forwards, meaning either Dempsey or Donovan would retreat to midfield, likely on the flank. Neither of them is at his best there, although both played out wide at the 2010 World Cup.
Klinsmann's second tactical headache is in central midfield, where his preference for the Michael Bradley-Jermaine Jones pairing doesn't appear to be getting the best out of the team's most consistent player. Both Bradley and Jones like to cover a lot of ground, get on the ball and help push the team forward. The issue for the U.S. is that Bradley is better at it than Jones, who doesn't seem content to play a more limited defensive role. Bradley likely would thrive with a bit of extra space in front of him (he was dominant in Sarajevo once Klinsmann removed the fifth midfielder) and a reliable, stay-at-home anchor behind. The coach remains a big fan of Jones and his imposing presence, meaning the Schalke 04 star likely isn't going anywhere. The evolution of his chemistry with Bradley will be a significant story during the next several months.
In back, Klinsmann may be no closer to knowing who his starting World Cup four will be, even after 12 straight wins. Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Clarence Goodson have the inside track on the two starting spots in central defense, but Cameron and John Brooks -- who made his debut on Wednesday -- could be options. The U.S. has struggled defending set pieces and still hasn't established any regular rhythm along the back line. Fabian Johnson may play left back out of necessity, although he's probably better in midfield, and minutes on the right are up for grabs.
Almost nothing is settled. Yet the U.S. continues to win.
"Everybody has confidence and tonight shows the depth we have in this team. Guys can step in at any time and put in a good performance," Altidore said Wednesday. "It makes us all better and demands the best out of each other. I think for the qualifiers we will look good."
They probably will look good, but CONCACAF presents a far different test than the World Cup, and the depth that Altidore referenced can't come at the expense of chemistry. Klinsmann has established a style and appears to have his players on board. Now he has 10 months to pick a team and figure out how to put his top players -- Altidore, Bradley, Dempsey and Donovan -- in position to perform their best.