Altidore left in Alkmaar: Progress has a weird way of rearing its head

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It used to be enough to be playing regularly in a big league. And when people said big league, they always meant Europe, though it didn’t necessarily have to be England or Italy. The Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland – these were big leagues in the days when the U.S. men’s national team boss had fewer options. If one of Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley’s biggest names hit a rough patch in Europe, what were the alternatives? In the days when Major League Soccer’s quality had taken a step back – when the league put only five players on rosters for South Africa – there weren’t a lot of opinions.

Two years ago, it would have been inconceivable to leave someone of Jozy Altidore’s stature off a national team roster that took Edson Buddle and Robbie Findley to World Cup 2010. Bob Bradley also selected Herculez Gomez to that team, a man who had to be pulled back from the thickest part of the international wilderness. His Mexican Primera scoring title with Puebla helped punched his ticket to South Africa.

That’s how much things have changed under Jurgen Klinsmann. Two years ago, that scoring title demanded Gomez get a look in the weeks before the World Cup. Now, Altidore leading the Netherlands in scoring actually obscures the picture. If you look at Altidore as a collection of attributes that have to fit into a system, you see his year-plus under Klinsmann and wonder what he brings to the team. If you look at his club form, you end up going to your forum of choice and posting some version of “This. Is. Crazy.”

It’s no longer enough for fans just to look at the scoresheet every weekend to get insight into the roster. Style matters. The component parts of a player’s performance are important. Fit with the team’s approach, philosophy, and attitude matter more than ever, and Altidore is not the only U.S. talent to struggle with Klinsmann’s new world order:

  • Eric Lichaj has made three starts this season for Aston Villa, enough to win the attention of national team fans asking for a recall. Klinsmann’s demurred.
  • Sacha Kljestan was called in this time, but despite seeing regular time at Anderlecht, the former Chivas USA midfielder has not cemented a spot in Klinsmann’s setup.
  • Benny Feilhaber was often Bob Bradley’s first substitute. In Klinsmann’s setup, there’s no clear place he would play.

This idea that fit can transcend pure talent isn’t unique to Klinsmann. One of the more curious omissions for the last World Cup was Esteban Cambiasso, left off the Argentina team despite being the best defensive midfielder in Italy. He just didn’t fit with what Diego Maradona wanted to do. Likewise, Miroslav Klose has remained an option to start as Germany’s No. 9 because his skillset is a better fit for what Joachim Löw wants. Mario Gomez, despite Gomez’s vastly superior club production, can’t push an aging Klose out of the picture. Diego never got a look for Brazil under Dunga, Darren Bent’s been neglected by England, while Fernando Llorente’s never been able to turn Vicente del Bosque’s head with Spain. Among nations with deep talent pools, an Alitore-esque situation is not uncommon.

In that sense, Altidore’s omission is a mark of progress for U.S. Soccer. The program is no longer reliant on the handful of players who were getting regular playing time in Europe. They don’t have to build around them. The head coach can afford to voluntarily omit one of his best club-level performers knowing the team’s unlikely to miss a beat. True, it’s not like Altidore is as important as a Clint Dempsey, but in the past, the omission of an Altidore would have caused a severe change in the U.S.’s fortunes.

The move also shows how much Major League Soccer has progressed. If it weren’t for Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon, Klinsmann may have had to make a go of it with a player he knows doesn’t work. Few people will argue that Johnson or Gordon are better players, in the abstract, than Altidore, but as it concerns fit with what Klinsmann wants to do, they’re the right call.

And would that quality of player have been there three years ago? Would Eddie Johnson have come back and been able to reach such a high level against the competition that was present in 2009? It’s unlikely. Back then, the league was offering Conor Casey and Brian Ching – strong players, but not options that would have left Altidore in Alkmaar.