There’s little debate about who the hottest two strikers in the world are that are eligible to play for the U.S. national team: Jozy Altidore, who is tied for the Dutch league scoring lead with eight goals for AZ Alkmaar, and Chris Wondolowski, who has 25 goals this season for San Jose in Major League Soccer.
Both were left off the 24-player U.S. roster for the final two matches of the semifinal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, matches that are as critical as they come outside of the international tournament itself. The U.S. needs positive results on Friday at Antigua and Barbuda and then Tuesday against Guatemala in Kansas City to assure advancement to next year’s final round of qualifying and avoid what would be an epic failure for U.S. Soccer.
But Jurgen Klinsmann, despite being under as much pressure as he’s faced in his 14-month tenure as U.S. coach, has his methods, and he explained his reasoning for choosing Seattle forward Eddie Johnson and San Jose forward Alan Gordon instead of Altidore and Wondolowski to reporters on conference call Monday afternoon.
“I communicated to Jozy I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months,” Klinsmann said. “I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason he’s not coming in is mainly because of his performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training, and also certain things that went on through the May-June camp. We decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon and give them a chance to show how much they have improved. They’re both doing very well in MLS right now.”
Klinsmann further explained that Altidore has not replicated his club form with the U.S. team despite being a fixture in meaningful U.S. matches but “certain things that went on” hint that there may be something more than simply Altidore’s form in matches that went into play.
Klinsmann said he’d been in touch with Wondolowski and Rapid Vienna forward Terrence Boyd, that his opting to go in a different direction was “more tactical.”
“We wanted to bring in Eddie and Alan because both are really strong in the air,” Klinsmann said. “We expect two difficult games where the opponent will probably play more defensively. They will probably get a lot of numbers in their box or in front of their box to play more defensive against us, so we need to have [the forwards] force things with crosses coming over the wings and be really strong in the air. That was the reason we brought in Eddie and Alan, two guys into the squad that are really good in the air and that can lay balls off. That’s also how I explained it to Terrence and to Wondo. Wondo is on a roll, and it’s fantastic to watch him. Both are on standby so if anything happens throughout the camp, with any injuries or anything, they’re ready to come in right away.”
As tactically-driven as the decision may be, this late in the process it can be dangerous. Gordon has never appeared for the U.S., and Johnson hasn’t made a U.S. appearance in four years. Of course, Wondolowski has just eight caps and Boyd has only six.
The inclusion of Johnson and Gordon could be moot if neither makes the 18-man roster for one or both of the matches. Landon Donovan appears to have shaken off a knee injury and could play at forward for the first time with Clint Dempsey since Klinsmann took over.
Klinsmann also had success throwing Graham Zusi into his first qualifying start in last month’s crucial home match against Jamaica, which the U.S. won, 1-0. Of course, that match became so crucial in part because of Klinsmann’s poor lineup choices the game prior, an historic first-ever loss at Jamaica, 2-1. That debacle is also evident with the choice in the midfield of long overlooked Sacha Kljestan over the newly omitted Jose Torres.
It all sets the stage for two games that few believed would have this much at stake.
The full U.S. roster:
GOALKEEPERS (3) : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), Tim Howard (Everton), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS (8) : Carlos Bocanegra (Racing Santander), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover), Maurice Edu (Stoke City), Clarence Goodson (Brondby), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim), Michael Parkhurst (Nordsjaelland)
MIDFIELDERS (8) : Kyle Beckerman (Real Salt Lake), Michael Bradley (Roma), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana), Jermaine Jones (Schalke 04), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht), Brek Shea (FC Dallas), Danny Williams (Hoffenheim), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
FORWARDS (5): Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur), Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), Herculez Gomez (Santos), Alan Gordon (San Jose Earthquakes), Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders)