United States coach Jürgen Klinsmann turned to the players he trusted to see him through a manageable pair of games against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala over the next week and secure a place in the final-stage hexagonal of World Cup qualifying.
In-form striker Jozy Altidore was widely expected to feature among them. In a shock, he will not.
Altidore may sit atop the Eredivisie scoring charts with eight goals in six games, but his current Dutch club prowess did not earn him a berth in the 24-man squad Klinsmann released on Monday afternoon.
"I communicated with Jozy that I was not happy about his latest performances with us," Klinsmann said in a conference call with the media. "Maybe, over the last 14 months, I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason why he's not coming in is mainly about the performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training. There were also certain things that went on during the May and June camp. So we decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon to show how much they've improved. They're both doing really, really well in MLS right now. And that's the reason."
Klinsmann's reasons may run a bit deeper. If the choices were truly about club form, then Altidore would start alongside MLS top scorer (and Gordon's San Jose teammate) Chris Wondolowski up front. Yet neither player even made the squad.
Instead of opting for those two players, Klinsmann turned to a pair of MLS regulars in Gordon and Johnson to fill the void up front. Both players are enjoying fine seasons for their respective clubs and are likely to accept a reserve role without much fuss. And neither man carries the potential upside that Altidore or fellow absentee Terrence Boyd do at this stage of their careers.
Gordon and Johnson were chosen over Altidore, Boyd and Wondolowski for one simple reason, according to Klinsmann: They offer the type of physical presence usually required to overpower sides such as Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala. Gordon contributes significantly to Wondolowski's success in San Jose with his deft hold-up play as a prototypical target player and his improved incisiveness in front of goal. Seattle forward Johnson supplies a proven record of terrorizing smaller CONCACAF nations with his pace and power.
"That is more tactically related," Klinsmann said. "I spoke both to Wondo and to Terrence. We wanted to bring in Eddie and Alan because both are really strong in the air. We expect these two games to be two difficult games where the opponents will play more defensively. They will get a lot of numbers in the box and in front of their box to play more defensive against us, so we need have them to force things with crosses coming from the wings and get really strong in the air."
That's a statement that doesn't hold up to scrutiny: If aerial strength constitutes one of the primary factors in the deliberations, then Altidore has to be there. He isn't a polished No. 9 just yet, but he boasts enough of those qualities to justify his selection. He regularly bowls over and through CONCACAF-caliber defenders when he conjures up the right attitude and the right performance in a US shirt.
In fact, Klinsmann's stated reasons are contradictory. If club form is important, why are Altidore and Wondolowski excluded? If club form isn't that important, how can Gordon and Johnson be named to the team on their MLS performances? Tactics are important, but consider that Sacha Kljestan finally received a recall for a set of games when Klinsmann expects to rely on wide players for the bulk of his midfield service. (To be fair, he does provide cover with four players -- Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu, Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones -- one booking away from suspension). If tactics aren't as important as quality, well, how can Gordon and Johnson hear their names called over the top scorers in the Eredivisie and MLS?
Here's the truth: Klinsmann picked a roster filled with players he trusted to carry him through this pair of games. That fundamentalist reasoning won't satiate those followers seeking the coherence this roster lacks, or satisfy the howls surrounding Altidore's absence, but it makes sense given the stakes in play.
Nothing is more important than fulfilling the obligations ahead during this international window. Klinsmann has chosen to rely on the players he trusts to clinch the mandatory berth in the hexagonal. Now those players must repay his faith by casting aside the controversies and taking care of business over the next week.