What started out as the next step in the evolution of a blossoming striker has become a nightmare as Jozy Altidore's time at Sunderland appears ready to reach its inevitable end.
Eight disappointing months, and two paltry goals later, Altidore's Sunderland move has been an abject failure, and instead of taking the English Premier League by storm, Altidore looks primed to leave the high-profile league after a truly forgettable season.
Sunderland has limped through an atrocious campaign, which should maybe have been expected after former manager Paolo Di Canio's early-season meltdown and departure got the Black Cats' season off to the worst possible start. Gus Poyet was hired as the team's new manager, and there was plenty of optimism going around once he took the job, but Poyet has done little to change Sunderland's doomed fate, and he has been unable to figure out how to fix the club's faltering attack.
It appears Poyet has grown tired of giving Altidore chances, and his decision to not only leave Altidore out of the match day squad against Tottenham last Monday, but to then play Altidore in Sunderland's Under-21 match against Tottenham on the same day looked every bit like an example of a manager that is tired of waiting for a player to figure things out.
|U.S. SOCCER LATEST
So what now for Altidore? With little more than a month left in the English Premier League season, and little more than a month until he will report to the U.S. national team's pre-World Cup training camp, it is probably wishful thinking to still hold out hope for an Altidore rally.
Poyet has benched Altidore before only to bring him back into the starting lineup. This most recent demotion feels different though. With Sunderland desperately needing a result against Tottenham to have any realistic hope of avoiding relegation, Poyet kept Altidore home. His team responded with a 5-1 loss to Tottenham that leaves Sunderland five points away from from safety with seven matches remaining.
Seven matches sounds like more than enough time for Altidore to still make a statement this season, but he can't make a statement if he isn't anywhere near the playing field.
If Poyet really is finished with Altidore, it will all but doom the striker to an off-season exit from Sunderland. If, as expected, Sunderland is relegated, the Black Cats will be looking to unload salary and sell off surplus. That means Altidore should be finding a new home this summer, whether Poyet remains the Black Cats' manager or not.
Where would Altidore go next? That will depend largely on the kind of summer he has with the U.S. national team. A strong World Cup against opponents like Portugal and Germany could certainly lead to some offers coming in for Altidore, even with the poor season at Sunderland.
But could he really still produce goals this summer if he winds up spending the next month on the bench at Sunderland, thus assuring himself of finishing off one of the worst individual seasons in recent memory for an American in Europe?
It might seem unlikely, but Jurgen Klinsmann is a safe bet to give Altidore every opportunity to lead the U.S. attack at the World Cup. After spending a full season trapped in one of the worst offenses in the Premier League, Altidore is likely to be downright giddy to once again be playing in a full-strength U.S. squad for the first time since World Cup qualifying. He has shown an ability to turn it up a notch with the U.S. even when he is struggling on the club level.
In fact, if you go back to 2010, the year Altidore spent on loan at Hull City as a teenager, we also saw him trapped on a terrible team, with playing time scarce and in a similar slump in front of goal. He learned from that experience at Hull and still showed enough to Bob Bradley to be the U.S. team's lead striker at the World Cup in South Africa. No, he didn't score any goals, but he was a handful in every sense, and played a part in multiple key moments for the United States.
|On Form In The States|
|While Altidore's struggles continued in England, which is cause for plenty of concern for U.S. national team fans, the other key cogs in Jurgen Klinsmann's attack were on top form last week.
Clint Dempsey's hat trick against Portland saw him headline Goal's MLS Team of the Week, while Michael Bradley's strong showing against Mexico and his second ever MLS goal at the weekend saw him named as Goal's CONCACAF Player of the Week.
Four years later, Altidore is more mature and a significantly better player. It may not be showing these days at Sunderland, but the 50-plus goals he scored for Dutch side AZ, and the scoring force he proved to be in World Cup qualifying in 2013, are credentials that can't just be ignored because of one putrid season in England.
Altidore should still have his chance to impress in Brazil, and now his showing at the World Cup will be even more important because a strong tournament this summer could lead to better options for him as he weighs life after Sunderland. A return to the Netherlands is entirely possible, with PSV Eindhoven identified as a club that has long expressed interest in his services, but if Altidore has aspirations of playing in one of Europe's top leagues, he will need to shine against the Group of Death that awaits in Brazil.
That is still two months away though. For now, all Altidore can do is keep working hard and hope that Poyet decides to give him some more opportunities in the season's final month. That may not even matter though, because Sunderland's attack remains toothless, and its midfield remains incapable of generating chances for its strikers (perhaps it is telling that the lone goal Sunderland scored against Tottenham came courtesy of a terrible giveaway from a Tottenham player rather than created by a Sunderland attacker).
Even if Altidore does find his way into some of those remaining seven matches, and even if he does wind up adding to that embarrassing tally of two goals in all competitions (29 fewer than he had for AZ a season ago), he won't be able to avoid this season being seen as anything but a failure. As much as the Sunderland attack could carry some heavy blame for that, Altidore will carry this failure with him until he proves himself in a a top league.
Still only 24, Altidore has plenty of time to repair the damage done by this forgettable season at Sunderland, and that repair work will begin in Brazil in June. If the final month of the Premier League season doesn't afford him the playing time necessary to sharpen his game, at the very least it should provide even more motivation for Altidore as he heads to the World Cup with a chip on his shoulder, and a career to revive.