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Jozy Altidore's early struggles at Sunderland have snowballed into a full-blown crisis, and even as his team shows improvement, Altidore keeps giving U.S. fans cause for concern.

So maybe it is time to start worrying about Jozy Altidore after all.

No, not just because of his forgettable outing against lowly Kidderminster in Sunderland’s recent underwhelming FA Cup victory. Not because it looks as though Steven Fletcher and Fabio Borini are poised to eat up a good portion of forward minutes for the Black Cats as they climb ever so slowly out of the relegation zone. Not even because Sunderland fans have started to turn on the U.S. national team forward, with ‘Dozy Altidore’ being the nickname of choice for the struggling striker.

No, the reason it might be time to worry about Altidore and his disappointing season at Sunderland is because he has continued to squander opportunities to impress manager Gus Poyet as the Black Cats battle to escape the relegation zone and compete for two trophies. Altidore has passed the point of enduring a slow start, or being able to blame his struggles on his team.

Now, it is on Altidore, and only he can salvage his season before he finds a permanent seat on the bench, and an uncertain future about just what sort of contribution he can make for the U.S. national team at this summer’s World Cup.

Altidore was given a half season to get settled, and sort out any issues with adjusting to a new league and new team, and even with Sunderland struggling right along side him, he had to know the onus would eventually be on him to start finding the net with some sort of regularity.

A TALE OF TWO SEASONS
Altidore's time for a move back to one of the big leagues came after a stellar season with AZ in the Dutch top flight. His 23 league goals in 33 appearances in 2012-2013 were part of a record for season for Americans in Europe and had the striker flying high heading into a summer move to Sunderland. That move has seen the goals dry up. In 2013-2014 the striker has scored just once in 20 league showings, leading to a an increasingly diminishing role with the Premier League side as it looks to fight off relegation.
Two goals in all competitions is a paltry sum for a $13 million signing, and it is getting tougher and tougher to defend his ineffectiveness as Sunderland slowly shows improvement under Poyet.

No, Sunderland isn't setting the world alight just yet, but reaching the League Cup Final and climbing out of last place in the Premier League are clear signs of progress. The issue is Fletcher and Borini finding the net while Altidore struggles to do so, and even though he has played better than some give him credit for, the scoreboard doesn’t lie and the concern caused by his lack of goals is being magnified with each match he disappoints in.

The Kidderminster match was supposed to be his chance to break out and show everybody why Sunderland paid the highest price ever for an American to bring him from the Netherlands. Not that it was a stiff challenge or anything, but simply scoring and showing some quality, even against a lower-division opponent, could have earned him some respite from the mounting criticism. A strong showing could have boosted his confidence, which at this point has to be a fraction of what it was last summer, when he couldn’t stop scoring for the U.S. national team.

Instead of shining, Altidore disappointed, even drawing boos from Sunderland fans with each touch, and scathing criticism from TV announcers who saw him as a liability.

Poyet has yet to single out Altidore for criticism, but you have to wonder whether his patience is wearing thin. Sunderland’s looming acquisition of Argentine forward/winger Ignacio Scocco could eat into Altidore’s minutes even more. Not that Scocco is a similar player to Altidore, but the more attacking options Poyet has, the more ways he can find to leave Altidore out. Particularly if Altidore’s form is in the dumps.

That is a lingering question that remains unanswered about Altidore. Is his current funk the case of a player merely being off form, and struggling to find the level he is truly capable of playing at, or is this current Altidore what we should come to expect from him in the English Premier League?

Some will point to his stint with Hull City in 2009-2010 as evidence of a player who “can’t handle the Premier League’, but using that year as evidence of what he can or can’t do now is a stretch. Back then, Altidore was a 19-year old with no real prior experience in Europe. He struggled in his own right, but also had to deal with playing for an awful Hull City team that was eventually relegated and finished with the second-fewest goals in the Premier League that season.

Altidore is a completely different player now than he was then, a much better player, even if his recent struggles make it appear that he isn’t. He showed in his past two seasons with AZ and in 2013 with the U.S. national team that he can score goals on a consistent basis and carry an attack.

Sunderland needs him to prove it now, as soon as possible, because too much is riding on the remainder of the season for Sunderland to keep giving Altidore minutes if he is going to struggle badly. With just one loss in five matches, and just two points from escaping the relegation zone, the Black Cats can still salvage a season that looked so hopeless in the fall.

So can Altidore, who does have the talent to score in the Premier League, but is running out of time to prove it. He needs a hot streak, and needs it fast. Many of Sunderland’s fans have lost faith in him, and if his manager loses faith in him, Altidore could be in for a long four months before the World Cup. And while his place on the U.S. team is all but assured, it would be tough to bank on Altidore being a major factor in Brazil if he is unable to turn things around in a considerable way between now and May, when the U.S. World Cup team gathers for training camp.

Altidore can still make something of this season, and still has time to build momentum toward the World Cup, but we have gone far past the realm of slow starts and placing blame for his struggles on others. Altidore is running out of time, and until he turns things around, there will be plenty of reason to worry about Altidore and a season that is slipping away.

STATE OF THE USMNT STARTING XI

The full U.S. men’s national team isn’t likely to gather for a match until March, and even then may not be at full strength with so many MLS-based players just starting their club seasons, but a look at the projected U.S. starting lineup heading into the World Cup reveals few changes, but some concerns.

Here is the lineup we can see taking the field in Natal against Ghana:

Tim Howard; Geoff Cameron, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Fabian Johnson; Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones; Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Aron Johannsson, Jozy Altidore

Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland raise the question of whether Jurgen Klinsmann will stick with him as a starter. For now we will say yes.

Klinsmann has shown an affinity for playing Fabian Johnson in midfield, but given the speed and athleticism of the U.S. team’s Group G opponents, it may be tough for Klinsmann to not play Johnson at left back ahead of the 31-year-old DaMarcus Beasley, who had a solid 2013 and is starting regularly for Mexican side Puebla.

Klinsmann did reveal that Graham Zusi and Donovan are both candidates for playing time, and the duo very well could be locked in a fierce competition for a starting role in Brazil. Donovan would seem to be the easy pick to find a place in the lineup, but Zusi has built momentum in the past six months and has impressed in the recent training camp. That’s to say nothing of Alejandro Bedoya, who is playing regularly for Ligue 1 side Nantes.

The back four seems a safe bet to be the group, though Klinsmann has been a big fan of Brad Evans at right back. He filled the role decently in World Cup qualifying, but given the caliber of wingers in Group G, it might be a stretch to think Evans can defend on that level.

Though he hasn’t been called up in almost a year, Timmy Chandler is someone who can’t be ruled out completely for a potential starting role. He is continuing to start regularly for German Bundesliga side Nurnberg and has the speed and versatility to be a perfect roster addition. Of course, Klinsmann has to actually call him up, which will make the March qualifier against Ukraine a very interesting one to watch.

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