When Eddie Johnson let slip he was going to be called into the U.S. Men’s National Team, Jozy Altidore was one of the first people to congratulate him publicly. For a young man just given his first major setback with the national team, it was a very mature move. By that time, the AZ Alkmaar striker probably knew he was going to be left out of Klinsmann’s team. To reach out to somebody who had become direct competition showed an admirable ability to detach and look at the world from his friend’s point of view. As much as we like to remind ourselves that Altidore’s only 22, in at least one way he’s shown himself mature beyond his years.
That’s why it’s not too difficult to imagine Altidore, from wherever he took in tonight’s match, sharing his teammates’ excitement at seeing Johnson reclaim his past prestige, scoring both goals in the States’ victory in Antigua. Perhaps (like many in the US) he wasn’t able to watch and was placated with iPhone updates, eft to smile when “20′ Johnson” was eventually joined by “90′ Johnson” on his site of choice. As we heard mid-week, Altidore isn’t one to sit around and stew.
Instead, the former first choice striker might see Friday’s game as an example of what Jurgen Klinsmann wants. Johnson, every bit as No. 9-esque as Altidore, was used as a left-sided player, a position that demanded the 6’0″ target man to occasionally track back to within a few yards of his own penalty area. Lacking a true midfielder’s motor, Johnson often looked ill-cast, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. If you didn’t know better, you’d think Klinsmann was picking the most-extreme way to show Altidore what’s expected from his forwards. After Johnson scored twice (one more goal than Altidore’s scored in 14 months under Klinsmann), the subtext was obvious: Being a striker and doing the work are not mutually exclusive ideas.
Altidore seems to get it that. He needs to change. How to change is the problem. As he told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl mid-week, “I have to get on the same page as the boss and all the senior players, not the other way around.”
If he had any doubt as to how to do that, all he has to do is study Johnson’s performance. While it’s unlikely Altidore would ever be asked to play the same position, he can still emulate the effort. He can attack crosses with the same vigor. He can still see the importance of the end product.
Judging by Altidore’s career arc, it’s a matter of when, not if he’ll adjust. Though his early days as a professional saw him lean on his physicality, setbacks in Europe are forcing him to develop an all-around game. It may have took him some time to learn that lesson, but as the joint-top scorer in the Netherlands, he’s applying what he’s learned. His resilience has been as important as his aptitude.
He won’t be out of the team for long. If Altidore did not “understand” what was being asked of him before, now he has a road map. If he takes that map and tackles his national team problem with the same effort (and humility) he used to reestablish his professional career, Altidore’s exclusion will be short.
That’s why, despite seeing his competition’s big night, Friday may have been a good one for Altidore. If he follows the road map that Johnson’s defined, the question shifts from if he’ll return to how he’ll fit once he’s back. Based on what we saw tonight, there’s no reason to think Johnson and Altidore can’t work together, giving the U.S. a more potent attack than most thought possible a month ago.
After all, under Klinsmann, when a center forward can become a left midfielder, it’s not hard to get willing pieces to play together.