The last we saw of Jozy Altidore in a United States national team uniform, he was down on the turf of Estadio das Dunas, the searing pain in his hamstring sending a signal that his brief appearance against Ghana would constitute his only action of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
And that’s almost the last anyone’s seen him in any uniform.
Altidore has begun the 2014-15 Barclay’s Premier League season where he ended the last: as a substitute generally entering Sunderland’s games with about 20 minutes remaining, most often asked to use his superior strength and improving ball skills to help his team chew up time and seal a desirable result. There is a value to this, but it’s not why the club paid nearly $12 million for him. It’s not what anyone wants to see, really, from the most promising striker yet to appear for the U.S. national team.
Altidore is supposed to score goals. He has done it (39 goals in 67 appearances for AZ Alkmaar from 2011-13, eight goals in 14 caps for the U.S. in 2013). And he has not done it (2 goals in 38 appearances for Sunderland last season, 5 goals in 29 caps for the U.S. from 2010-12).
He will lead the U.S. men out Wednesday afternoon for a friendly against the Czech Republic in Prague as team captain. Regular captain Clint Dempsey was left in the States to deal with his ongoing MLS season, and frequent replacement Tim Howard is taking a year off from international play. So Altidore will get the chance, for the second time, to be the team’s leader. And he’ll probably be good at it.
Altidore no longer is the immature kid left out of some crucial World Cup qualifiers in 2012 because coach Jurgen Klinsmann didn’t appreciate his approach to training. Altidore has handled success and struggle beautifully on and off the field in the time since.
When a shortage of quality chances and the pressure of a Premier League relegation battle led him to squander the rare scoring opportunities that developed, Altidore continued to work and embraced the “closer” role that helped Sunderland rally to remain in the BPL another year. When Altidore broke a long scoring drought – personal, and at the national team level – with a two-goal outing in a pre-World Cup friendly against Nigeria, he reacted with calm and common sense.
"Everybody is so worried about my confidence — it's unbelievable. My confidence is fine," Altidore told the media following that game. “It's not going to change whether I score a hat trick or I don't score at all.”
Others’ confidence in Altidore will not follow the same course, however. That’s the strangest thing about this position on a soccer team: Being right just once a game can make you a superstar, but being perfect for an entire afternoon save for that one essential moment can make you a bum.
Of all the players on a soccer team, the one most aggressively measured by statistical production is the striker. Every other position can hide behind a “yeah, but”; even a goalkeeper can be held blameless for a torrent of goals allowed if the defense in front of him is garbage. A midfielder can be praised for “tracking back” or “covering ground”. If a striker does not find the goal at a reasonable rate, no matter the rest of his contributions, he is condemned.
A lot of elite soccer players effectively use their performances for club teams as auditions for national team duty, but Altidore enters the Czech friendly looking to do the opposite. He needs to play minutes and produce goals to convince Sunderland manager Gus Poyet he is worthy of a greater role at his day job.
Only this might not be an ideal circumstance to help Altidore find the goals he has been chasing. The typical engines of the U.S. attack – Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones – will all be Stateside as this game is contested. The midfield is likely to include such players as Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya, perhaps Joe Corona of Mexico’s Club Tijuana. It’s an opportunity for them, too, but they’ll not be facing a pliable opponent. The Czechs are building toward their Euro 2016 qualification campaign and will want to dismantle their young American opposition.
If Altidore can excel in this circumstance, he’ll surely make an impact on those watching him most closely, those most invested in his success. He missed an opportunity to turn around his 2014 on the game’s grandest stage when he was felled by that injury while chasing a long forward feed.
A fall friendly four years removed from the next World Cup is not nearly as glamorous as a Brazil World Cup, but it could be just as important.