AMSTERDAM – Numbers can be quite cooperative, funny things. Any clever accountant, disreputable pollster or sports statistician will tell you that numbers can often be gently coerced into telling the story one wants heard.
In the wake of AZ Alkmaar top gun Jozy Altidore's exclusion from the current US national team squad, one stat has been lording over the resulting discussion thanks to those behind Jurgen Klinsmann's controversial decision (for reasons both understandable and overwrought).
It is, of course, true that Altidore has scored but one goal – and none from the run of play – since Klinsmann assumed control in August of last year. When put like that, proponents of the move tend to seem satisfied that the debate over these USMNT efforts is done and dusted.
However, finding the recent Altidore discourse overly light on numbers, I decided to ramp up the critical thinking with a few more just to round out the plot summary.
Let's start with the number of times during the Klinsi era that the forward in question has started alongside the top USMNT drink-stirrers, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan. That would be zero, the same number of games Klinsmann has started more than two natural playmakers behind lone striker Altidore.
Furthering the above theme, the Eredivisie joint-top scorer has played the meager sum of 47 minutes with Dempsey, Donovan and Michael Bradley on the field.
In Altidore's two US starts this year, the entire team managed just four and seven shots. In his eight starts since Klinsmann took the reins, the Nats have averaged 9.7 attempts at goal, with a 22-shot effort against Costa Rica soufflé-ing the stat. In five of his starts, the team got off seven shots or fewer.
Since Klinsmann took over, USMNT playmakers and wingbacks have combined for just six assists in 18 games. This helps explain why strikers have scored only twice from the run of play in 11 matches this year.
Finally, 15 is the number of times that the US has bagged one goal or less in Klinsmann's 18 games in charge. Of those 15, six occurred when Altidore did not play, eight happened when he played no more than 10 minutes and nine times when he played no more than 26.
So ... what story am I trying to tell? It's the one that says "not so fast" to one stat that glosses over the issues far more relevant than the forward's meager production under Klinsmann.
Let's set aside all possible talk of off-field factors, legitimate or not, and focus on the team's attack. The numbers above certainly do not favor Altidore much, but they also make it fairly clear that he is far from the sole problem with a US offense that's struggled to produce chances and goals convincingly since the World Cup summer of 2010.
Part of the problem is as simple as the very real run of confounding injury woes since Klinsmann stepped into the US dugout. It's not Altidore's fault he has so often gone without the best three set-up players in the pool.
Nor is it to his demerit that created chances are few and far between. One can talk all they want about how players must adapt to the team, but we're talking about the No. 9 cobra head.
Blaming Altidore for not scoring in six 2012 appearances when he's been found for only four shots is a bit like if we faulted Tim Howard for facing too many shots. The whole idea is for your power forward to typically be the fatal blow at the end of heavy industry; in that regard the attack does need to play to Altidore's strengths.
As such, the boss has to shoulder a share of the responsibility for failing to get AZ production out of Altidore. Twas always thus, and always thus will be, right?
Klinsmann is in charge. He plays the defensive midfielder on right wing, he moves the flank set-up attacker to defense during a set-up shortage, he fields the side that fail to spread the defense. All of these factors have conspired with the injuries to reduce Altidore scoring chances over this statistical cold spell.
Many observers have bemoaned (or worse) that Altidore struggles to score with the USMNT have come to an aggravating head at the same time that he's hit 15 in his last 19 AZ outings. With advanced apologies for any blown minds, the disconnect here is not the striker.
It's that one team plays to his strengths (quick combos on the area's edge, through balls to the side lanes and facing the top of the box on the ball) and one has a coach publicly commenting that Altidore needs to get with the plan. It also has watchers shrieking that the team should pay no tactical deference to the striker they expect to be a world class hit man at 22.
The point of all this is not to exonerate Altidore or bash the benching. It's to remind everyone to always look past the obvious first number if they prefer the real story to the easy conclusion.