BOCA RATON, Fla. — With Jozy Altidore seated to his right, U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann made one thing clear in his own not-so-subtle way: As much as Altidore may be struggling with English club Sunderland, one option the American striker better not even consider is a return to Major League Soccer.
Klinsmann didn’t say it directly, but that was the message delivered after the U.S. boss reiterated his well-known concerns about having top national team players like Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley return to MLS rather than staying in top European leagues.
Klinsmann pulled no punches on Monday, the day before the U.S. is to face Honduras. He laid out his concerns about Dempsey and Bradley being able to maintain their best level while playing in MLS, and believes Altidore is better off fighting for minutes in the English Premier League than coming back to MLS.
“There’s nothing I can do about it,” Klinsmann said when asked if he was concerned about Dempsey and Bradley being able to maintain their levels playing in MLS. “I made it clear with Clint’s move back and (Bradley’s) move back that it’s going to be very difficult for them to keep that same level that they experienced at the places where they were. It’s just reality. It’s just being honest.
“I want (Altidore) to get through the difficult time at Sunderland and maybe make a big step one day to a Champions League team in Europe because that’s where the top players in the world play,” Klinsmann said. “Now, making the step back, I totally get it. It’s a huge financial offer. It’s also connected to many other elements and this league is getting better and stronger every year which we are all very proud about, and I want everyone to grow in this environment, but the reality also is that for both players, making that step means that you are not (in the) competitive environment that you were in before.
“It’s not easy for Michael and it’s not going to be easy in the future.”
Klinsmann expressed concern with Bradley’s situation at Toronto FC, where the club has endured a disappointing season and Bradley has struggled to live up to the expectations placed on him as one of the highest-paid players in MLS.
“I think he’s been faced with a very, very difficult year," Klinsmann said of Bradley. “Making that decision to go from Roma, a Champions League team, to Toronto, that now seems like they’re not even qualifying for the playoffs, it’s a huge disappointment. That comes along with that you adjust yourself to whatever environment you’re in.
“He had to adjust to the environment he’s in with Toronto instead maybe an environment that plays Champions League football,” Klinsmann said. “He’s going through that experience now and still coming in. For the first time since the World Cup, he has to prove that he hasn’t lost a bit. Obviously, he'll keep working and pushing, but it’s down to him and his environment to see what he’s capable to play in.”
Altidore has already stated he will look for a new club if his playing time at Sunderland doesn’t increase, but given Klinsmann’s statements about players struggling to maintain a high level by leaving Europe for MLS, it would appear unlikely that the 24-year-old would follow the path taken by Dempsey and Bradley, who both returned to MLS recently.
“I always say about this topic that you’re going to go through these times and, like Jurgen said, it’s about keeping the mental part of it strong,” Altidore said of his recent struggles at Sunderland. “It’s never going to be all good times. When these times come, you’re tested and you have to be patient and also stay true to what you’re all about.
“That’s one thing I’m always saying to myself is to not change my mentality just because the situation isn’t going the way I want it to,” Altidore said. “You’ve just got to be patient and try to make it happen and, if not, look for solutions.”
Based on Klinsmann’s comments, it doesn’t sound like MLS will be one of those solutions any time soon.