Retracing USMNT's desperate need for Altidore's unpredictable goal scoring

Retracing USMNT's desperate need for Altidore's unpredictable goal scoring

Jozy Altidore is just a goal shy of fourth place on the all-time list of top scorers for the United States men's national team. After bagging two goals in a 2-1 win over Peru on Friday night, another tally will move him beside Brian McBride. Five more and he'll match Eric Wynalda for third.

But that he has done so two months and two days before his 26th birthday says as much about the enduring dearth of real strikers in the U.S. national team pool as it does Altidore.

The Haitian-American made his debut 11 days after his 18th birthday, became a regular at 19 and has been a mainstay since. Even as his career meandered through Europe – floundering in Spain, England and Turkey, then thriving in the Netherlands, and finally flaming out with Sunderland of the Premier League – he retained his national team job. He even kept his place through an 18-month goal drought once.

Because there was never really anybody else.

The Americans historically needed a pure striker, a target man like Altidore, to hold the ball up and relieve pressure from the defense and allow his teammates to charge upfield in their counter-attacking style. A handful of strikers in Major League Soccer weren't up to snuff. Charlie Davies was never the same after his car accident. Herculez Gomez didn't quite fit the system. Juan Agudelo wilted early on. Chris Wondolowski couldn't replicate his prolific scoring record at the international level. And Clint Dempsey was never a real central striker.

There still aren't any real alternatives. Some younger players have showed promise but they are several years from contributing reliably. Others aren't really out-and-out strikers. And so head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has no choice but to stick with Altidore, even if he has kicked him off the team a few times for a lack of effort or fitness.

The Americans make due with him through his maddening streakiness. To wit: Altidore scored eight goals in 2013 but none in 2012. He didn't score in a year and a half and then got seven goals in five games. He went another eight months without scoring and then got two on the eve of the 2014 World Cup, as panic about yet another one of his goal scarcities spread.

Take a hard look at the statistics, however, and you'll conclude that Altidore's goals for the United States are not only vexingly unpredictable, but also disproportionately important.

Of his 29 goals, a staggering 18 put the Americans in the lead. Three of them equalized games, and one brought the U.S. back within a goal, whereupon they equalized. Even more remarkable is that 13 of them made a game 1-0, including four games in a row during a key stretch in World Cup qualifying in the summer of 2013.

Following the win over Peru, Klinsmann told reporters that he'd planned to take Altidore out of the game after halftime but left him on because he looked like he might make the difference.

That could be so much revisionist history, but Altidore did seem unusually fixated late in the first half when he intercepted a wayward Peruvian backpass, only to redirect it so hard that he ran out of room to score.

The thing with Altidore is that you're never quite sure what you're going to get. He has actually been more consistent with the national team than with the bulk of his clubs. Probably because the U.S. offense is built around his skillset, whereas clubs have often forced him into roles that don't fit him precisely, which is when he tends to wither.

All the same, there seem to only be three kinds of Altidore performances. Ones in which he passes through a game imperceptibly and anonymously. Ones where he doesn't score but contributes significantly with stout hold-up play. And ones when you don't see much of him until he manages to get on the end of a chance or two and scores. These are the options with him.

Altidore, more than almost any other American striker, is dependent on service. He doesn't create chances for himself. Coaches have long since talked him out of facing up defenders and trying to take them on one-on-one – and wisely so. He isn't the sort to run away from a defender and pick up a savvy through ball. Nor does he beat many men to the header on crosses.

Altidore needs to be teed up, for the ball to be delivered to his feet so that he can apply the final strike. Do that, and he's efficient. But that means his peers have to serve him a steady diet of clear-cut chances. There will be plenty of days when they can't muster any for their striker.

And then there will be nights like Friday, when Altidore won a penalty on a long throw and then volleyed home after his spot kick was initially saved. And when he scored off the rebound from a Gyasi Zardes shot. On those nights, he'll get two chances and get the goals needed for the Americans to claim victory in a game in which they were often outplayed.

And all that faith and patience and frustration will have been justified and repaid handsomely once again.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.