PANAMA CITY, Panama – Five starts, zero goals and mounting pressure following a big-money move that’s since been replaced in the headlines by relegation chatter. A lesser striker might take it all to heart.
Fortunately, Jozy Altidore isn’t lacking for conviction. Despite a slow start to his second life in the Premier League with Sunderland, the 23-year-old doesn’t seem like a man living his professional life under soccer’s biggest microscope.
Two days after returning to the scoresheet for the first time since Aug. 27 – a tap-in finish that polished off a 2-0 win against Jamaica in Kansas City – Altidore dismissed the notion that a goal might be just what he needed to rediscover the form that saw him set the Eredivisie alight last season before scoring seven goals in five games for the US this summer.
“Any player is a product of the environment,” he told MLSsoccer.com following Sunday night’s training session at Estadio Rommel Fernández. “If we’re playing good attacking football, you’re always going to have opportunities to score goals.”
“I don’t change my mentality or the way I play,” he continued when asked about the slow start to his club campaign. “I feel like I’m playing well at Sunderland. We just have some bad luck right now, but I feel like I’m playing well and doing things right.”
Truthfully, Altidore is unlucky not to have at least one goal to his name after a delayed foul call wiped away a bruising run and finish against Arsenal at the Stadium of Light.
That goal might not have been the difference in what was eventually a 3-1 win for the Gunners, but it certainly would have alleviated some of the pressure seven games into a season in which Sunderland find themselves dead last with just a point from seven games and boasting a minus-11 goal differential.
That dire form led to the sacking of the man who brought Altidore to Wearside, Paolo Di Canio, with Uruguayan Gus Poyet replacing the Italian and bringing with him considerably more managerial experience – and fewer tabloid headlines. That won’t keep Sunderland from being strongly linked with the drop, however, something Altidore is familiar with after spending a year on loan with Hull City three years ago.
“I think it kind of stunts when you’re trying to build something because the pressure of staying in the league,” Altidore said. “Every year there are different types of teams in the Premier League just trying to stay up. … If we can just focus on building a good team and try to leave the rest of the stuff out, it will be good for us. Hopefully the new manager can help us do that.”
Thousands of miles away from the EPL pressure cooker, there’s no such pressure on Altidore and the US ahead of Tuesday’s Hexagonal finale against Panama (9:30 pm ET, beIN Sport) even after struggling for the better part of an hour against the Reggae Boyz at Sporting Park.
“We were all a bit lethargic,” Altidore said. “Maybe we had a little bit of that honeymoon of qualifying.”
After missing the victory against the sealed the US’ World Cup berth in Columbus because of suspension, Jurgen Klinsmann partnered Altidore – now unquestionably his first-choice striker – with former club teammate Aron Johannsson.
By most measurements, the results weren’t up to par for the pair. Altidore may have nabbed a insurance goal, one created by substitute Edgar Castillo after Jamaica ran out of gas in the late going, but he certainly wasn’t content with his impact on the match as a whole and the effect that had on his partner.
“It was a bit on me because I think I had a really bad game. I didn’t hold the ball well, so that kind of hurt the team a bit,” Altidore said. “Aron did well. I thought he moved well. It was maybe a little bit of nerves there, which is normal in his first start. You can see the ability. He can drift into the pockets, he has good touch, he creates place for himself. He’s a fantastic little player. We’re lucky to have him.”
And the US are fortunate to have Altidore – even if luck hasn’t been so forthcoming at the club where he’ll tune up for next summer’s main event.
If Altidore’s self assurance is any indication, those breaks will eventually come. And when they do, the hope is that both Poyet and Klinsmann will reap the benefits as the world builds toward 2014.
“I just want to play wherever I can to get Brazil, man. That’s my whole focus,” Altidore said. “Nobody’s [place] is given. I just want to do my part to make sure I’m on that plane next summer.”