Losing time at Sunderland, Jozy Altidore needs to impress for U.S.

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Jozy Alitdore’s struggles have been well-documented, but until the Sunderland’s game at Wembley on Sunday, the United States’ first choice striker was still getting playing time with his Premier League club. For this weekend’s League Cup final, however, the 24-year-old was omitted from Gus Poyet’s team, and while Black Cats’ supporters were surely more concerned about their team’s outcome than the implications for Altidore, U.S. Men’s National Team fans undoubtedly looked at their striker’s omission as another warning sign. The 2013-14 season has turned into a nightmare for Jozy Altidore.

Sunday’s omission is one Jurgen Klinsmann surely noted, too, with the U.S. boss having previously detailed his views on winning playing time. After the U.S.’s win over South Korea in early February, the national team head coach said players need to ask what else they could be doing when they’re not being chosen by their clubs:

I tell players often that when they are not playing in their club teams, for whatever reason, to stop complaining about it and show your coach every day that you’re the hungriest on the training field, that you’re the most committed one that you’re the earliest guy coming in, and you’re the last that leaves. Tell me one coach in the world that would ignore that at the end of the day and not play him. When our players are not making certain teams, are not making starting lineups, there’s something that they’re not doing.

(MORE: Fear not, U.S. Men’s National Team fans: Ukraine is on the ground in Cyprus)

Altidore hasn’t been complaining, but it’s easy to see what he’s “not doing”. The former AZ Alkmaar, Villarreal, and New York Red Bulls striker has only scored twice in his return to England, where he previously spent an equally unproductive season on loan with Hull (two goals, 30 games in 2009-10). His work rate up top had previously won him playing time, clearing the way for Fabio Borini and Adam Johnson, but this weekend against Manchester City, Poyet decided to go in a different direction. For their most important game of the season, the Black Cats omitted Altidore.

Ahead of his national team’s only friendly (within a FIFA window) before pre-World Cup camps convene in May, focus now turns to Altidore’s international form. Should his club struggles affect his play for the U.S., the importance Klinsmann put on Altidore as part of his team’s spine may need to be reevaluated. Also from February:

“I think Jozy, once he’s keeping his playing rhythm and the quality that he has, is our number one center forward that we have. Clint [Dempsey] is the player behind him. We often talk about the spine of our team, which starts with Timmy [Howard] and goes through midfield with Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, and then Clint and Jozy.”

(MORE: Players who need to make an impact for the U.S. on Wednesday (and there are a lot of them))

Having spent his tenure building that core, Klinsmann is seeing his plans undermined by what’s transpired at the Stadium of Light. Whereas so much was invested in working with Altidore — dropping him from the team and successfully reintegrating him a year ago — now a crash in production and Sunderland’s fight for survival could see Klinsmann’s lead striker lose valuable playing time ahead of the World Cup. The form that saw Altidore score eight times for the U.S. in 2013 is a distant memory, with the potential to struggle in Brazil  growing concern.

Sure, there’s Aron Johannsson, but he’s never had to be the main guy for the national team. As Altidore’s maturation shows, it’s not a given that club success will immediately translate to the international level. The likes of Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd, and Chris Wondolowski are squad options, they’re not players who can carry the team into the second round. Already in his second World Cup cycle, Altidore has been groomed to lead the U.S.’s attack.

While a series of players are fighting for roster spots this week, Altidore’s performance Wednesday against Ukraine may be more important. Particularly with Clint Dempsey struggling, Altidore can’t go into May on this trajectory. With his spring playing time at Sunderland uncertain, the U.S.’s number nine could use a strong showing in Cyprus.