Jozy Altidore's time should be over with USMNT, so bring on Bobby Wood
As Jurgen Klinsmann looks toward the 2018 World Cup, he's clearly rethinking his forward line.
"At this point in time, I want to give the younger strikers a chance to prove themselves and this is a good stage to do it," the United States national team head coach said in an attempt to explain why he left Clint Dempsey off the roster for upcoming qualification matches against St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. (The manager's words do nothing to justify the inclusion of 34-year-old Alan Gordon, but that's a different column.)
The choice to start qualifying without the former captain and Gold Cup bright spot is at once confusing and also classic Klinsmann, the decision of a coach who never wants his players to feel comfortable. It was the hallmark of a manager searching for answers, desperate to find a player or two from the so-far underwhelming next generation who can contribute at the international level. It was the latest -- and most obvious -- move in a series of signs that the American team will change dramatically between now and Russia.
But if Klinsmann really wants to make a statement, he should look to the other forward position. When the Stars and Stripes take the field on Friday evening in St. Louis' Busch Stadium, Jozy Altidore should not be starting at target forward. Bobby Wood should be.
For the past half dozen years, Altidore has served as the primary target striker in part because of his skill but also because no one else managed to grab the role. Dempsey, who's better running at defenders, isn't a prototypical player in that spot. Terrence Boyd never showed more than flashes of skill with his back to goal, failing to find any consistency. A few years ago, Teal Bunbury had a couple nice moments but nothing more. Juan Agudelo hasn't put a run together. Chris Wondolowski works hard but is always going to be limited at the highest level.
We've seen other options come and go -- Gordon, Eddie Johnson -- but nothing stuck, so Altidore got the call time and time again.
And he hasn't been a bad choice, having shown he can score, especially when he's feeling confident. He tallied 13 goals in 26 appearances for Toronto FC this season and found four goals in 11 matches for the U.S. in 2015, albeit only two since March 25. In CONCACAF competition, Altidore can overpower defenders and, on his good nights, deliver smart passes, creative options and deft first touches.
But there are too many off-nights. Klinsmann also knows what he has in the 26-year-old forward. His ceiling isn't as high as it once appeared, and he too infrequently approaches that level. Altidore has struggled with injuries and fitness, and has rarely looked as sharp as one would hope. He suffers setbacks at the most inopportune times, like a hamstring injury midway through the first match of the 2014 World Cup. (One of Klinsmann's biggest failings as a coach was not having a second target striker on that roster and no Plan B after Altidore went down.)
In Wood, however, the American coach has a player in the ascendency. The 22-year-old finally found a stable spot with 2.Bundesliga's Union Berlin, where he has scored five goals in 14 games, including one over the weekend. For the U.S., he has three goals in seven matches -- June winners against The Netherlands and Germany, and a smart finish against the run of play in October's CONCACAF Cup vs. Mexico, a match to which he was a late addition.
These are important moments, especially the left-footed blast to beat Klinsmann's native country, but it was Wood's performance in the match with Costa Rica that was the most instructive. He came on for Altidore to start the second half and immediately made an impact on the proceedings. During a fixture in which most members of the U.S. vacillated between shell-shocked and disinterested, Wood cared.
He went into challenges hard. He fought for balls. He yelled. He pushed. He was strong enough to hold off Jonny Acosta and quick enough to maneuver around the enormous Kendall Waston. Wood refused to back down, displaying an ability to hold up the ball with effortless chest traps and impressive first touches, and also the willingness to make something happen on his own.
In short, Wood looked like a man who belonged, and one who desperately wanted to be on the field.
Rocked by multiple knee injuries that required surgery earlier in his career, Wood fought hard to get back to this point. He nearly derailed his promise after playing through pain during the 2011 Under-20 CONCACAF Championship. He faced setback after setback, and struggled through a difficult 2014 where he couldn't get on the field at 1860 Munich.
The attacker credits the U.S. coach, who gave him time against Colombia and Ireland, for keeping his faith intact. "If Klinsmann didn't support me, I think I'd be somewhere else right now," he said earlier this fall. "He was the only one who had my back at the time, aside from my family and friends."
Wood is only now beginning to realize his promise with the help of a stable club career. Becoming a fixture on the U.S. national team is the next step. Wood's rapid growth is nicely timed with Klinsmann's desire to get younger before the most difficult stages of World Cup qualifying begin in earnest.
The coach called in players such as Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe and Matt Miazga to the latest camp. Nearly half the roster is under 25 years-old, and the coach will throw many of them into the fire at some point as he has with others like DeAndre Yedlin.
With Klinsmann, it's always sink or swim. With his performances this year, Wood has shown he can thrive in international waters.
Six years ago, a 19-year-old Altidore scored three times in a World Cup qualifier against Trinidad & Tobago. Today, the U.S. team finds itself in the middle of another youth movement. It's time for players like Wood to lead the way, not just in terms of making the roster but by doing so on the field.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.