American Exports: Jozy Altidore admits to "freezing up" in front of goal during slow Sunderland start
Jozy Altidore sees light at the end of the tunnel. He just needs a goal (or five) to emerge from the darkness that has the American soccer community wondering what ails the man who’ll almost certainly lead the US national team front line in Brazil.
With just two goals for Sunderland in a shade more than 1,500 minutes in the English Premier League, FA Cup and Capital One Cup, there’s no doubt Altidore has fallen short of expectations following a $10 million move from AZ Alkmaar, where he scored 31 goals during a banner 2012-13 season.
Match commentators, headline writers and Twitter know-it-alls haven’t been particularly understanding when it comes to Altidore’s decidedly slow start in his EPL return following a previous loan stint with Hull City. Frankly, it's hard to blame them, but Altidore may be tougher on himself than the cadre of observers wondering why the goals and confidence have dried up.
“To be honest, it’s been tough for me, adjusting to the team and everything. I demand more of myself,” Altidore told the Sunderland Echo. “I’m freezing up in front of goal lately and it’s difficult. The confidence or quick thinking isn’t there. I’m overthinking things a little bit.”
That lack of instinctual play in front of goal was plain to see as Altidore squandered a one-v-one opportunity against Newcastle on Saturday. Instead of rounding goalkeeper Tim Krul and slotting the ball away, he dawdled on the ball and had it taken off his foot.
And although he missed out on an golden opportunity to get back on the score sheet for the first time since a Dec. 4 goal against Chelsea in league play, Altidore had perhaps his best game as a Sunderland player.
He helped set up Adam Johnson’s first goal with a nifty backheel, used his strength to win his side dangerous free kicks and put Newcastle on their heels with his power and combination play in a resounding 3-0 derby victory.
“I’m trying my best,” Altidore told the Echo. “The one thing I’m learning more and more, even though I was in the Premier League before, is that English football is all about desire and fighting.
“That’s one thing which is different because in Holland, the whole team is designed to play for you, to look for you always. In England, it’s not so much like that. …You have to get used to helping the team in other ways and I’m getting used to doing that.”
Slowly it seems Altidore’s becoming more and more comfortable in his role with the help of manager and former EPL striker Gus Poyet, who was hired in October after Paolo Di Canio was unceremoniously shown the door.
Fortunately, Poyet seems to have kept the faith in the club’s big-money summer signing despite the lack of goalscoring. Of course, with reinforcements arriving in January, that patience may not last forever.
So far it seems Altidore's national team coach is unconcerned as well. Jurgen Klinsmann recently named Altidore as one of five players the USMNT will be built around in Brazil and the 24-year-old is expected to join his international teammates for a March 5 friendly vs. Ukraine.
He scored eight goals and added two assists in 14 appearances for the USMNT in 2013, easily the best statistical year of his international career, and the hope is that form will translate to his club career in the coming months.
“It’s a totally different system under [Poyet],” Altidore told the Echo. “But I’m still getting chances, maybe not as many as I’d like, but I’m still getting them and freezing up. It’s something I’ll carry on working on in training because if I didn’t have the ability, it’d be one thing. But I know I have it.”