The absence of Jozy Altidore from Sunderland’s 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace on Saturday creates some cause for concern for United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann ahead of the upcoming qualifiers against Costa Rica and Mexico.
Sunderland announced Altidore missed the defeat at Selhurst Park with a hamstring injury on its official Twitter feed. The extent of the injury remains uncertain:
Striker @JozyAltidore is missing with a hamstring injury.— Sunderland AFC (@SAFCofficial) August 31, 2013
He is expected to link up with his American teammates in Miami and receive further evaluation by the U.S. medical staff, a U.S. Soccer spokesperson confirmed on Saturday.
Altidore’s importance to the side in recent months makes the diagnosis particularly influential. The former AZ striker has scored in each of his past five appearances, including a hat trick in the 4-3 victory at Bosnia-Herzegovina on Aug. 14. His recent form (he leads all scorers in the Hexagonal with three goals) and his status within the ranks leaves Klinsmann with a quandary if he is, for some reason, unable to feature.
Landon Donovan’s return to the ranks creates additional depth and flexibility in the attacking third, but Altidore plays a particularly vital role given his willingness to lead the line. Most of the players at Klinsmann’s disposal – including Donovan and captain Clint Dempsey – prefer to drift into dangerous areas from a variety of angles and operate in the space underneath a center forward. Altidore instead provides the touchstone required to allow other players to thrive. And there is no player in the current squad capable of replicating those exact contributions.
If Altidore cannot feature against Costa Rica or Klinsmann opts to hold him out to provide him with more recovery time (or sidestep a potential second booking), then the Americans must figure how to adapt without him.
There isn’t a simple answer to the quandary. Eddie Johnson probably presents the most natural swap – he isn’t a prototypical target player, but he does stave off defenders and surge behind the line – on a night when the Americans might have to soak up some pressure. Dempsey supplies the primary alternative given his dexterity and the potential opening created for Donovan, but a tethered position up front reduces his ability to influence the game in other ways. And Klinsmann – as evidenced by his willingness to deploy Johnson on the left side of midfield and use DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans at fullback – possesses the imagination to explore other options as well.
Klinsmann will certainly hope he does not have to pursue any of them. Altidore remains the firm first choice up front. But he will have to wait and see whether Altidore’s health will dispel any uncertainty in the coming days and permit him to take his usual place up front in San Jose on Friday night.
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