LARNACA, Cyprus – Jozy Altidore has earned his place as one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s favorites. Netting eight goals in 2013, he finished the year as the US national team’s top scorer, so despite his poor club form for Sunderland, the 24-year-old was trusted with leading the line in Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat to Ukraine.
It's no surprise, then, that Altidore admits that it is with the national team where he feels most at ease.
“Absolutely,” Altidore told MLSsoccer.com. “I feel like the players know my strengths more and it’s where I’m most comfortable, sure. I’ve been faring better with the national team over the past year, and I want to keep that going because it means a lot to me to play well for my country.”
The shaky start to 2014 follows a 2013 campaign during which Altidore nailed down the forward role in the national team, scoring in a USMNT record five consecutive games following an impressive season for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar during the 2012-13 campaign.
But since joining Sunderland on a four-year contract in the summer, Altidore has failed to make his mark in his latest stint in England. Having scored just twice all season, the striker was left out of this past Sunday’s League Cup final against Manchester City. There wasn’t even a place on the bench for him.
“To not be able to play in a final like that was a big disappointment for me,” he said. “But the gaffer felt that there were people who deserved to be there more than I did. But hey, this is life and I have to move on and get better. It’s nothing personal; you can’t look at it that way. I need to get my head down and work hard.”
Klinsmann agreed, and challenged Altidore to force his way back into the Sunderland team, underlining the difference a good run of form can make heading into the World Cup.
“You want every player to get into a rhythm,” the USMNT head coach told reporters. “If a player is suddenly on the bench, and in a striker’s case being denied the opportunity to score goals, when you head into the biggest competition in the world, then yes you think about that and you hope that he solves the situation and gets back into the team.
"But it’s up to the players to solve it. We need our players to get into a rhythm in the next 10, 12 weeks.”
So will Altidore be given another chance at Sunderland before the World Cup kicks off in June?
“I would think so, but you have to work for it,” he said.
“At Sunderland right now, it’s difficult. It’s a difficult team to play for, and we’re not playing as well as anybody at the club would like," Altidore added. "But we need to put our heads down and keep fighting so I can get back in the team and hopefully get my place on the plane to Brazil.”
With the World Cup just three months away, opportunities for refinement are running out for the US. And the performance against Ukraine offered few answers to the questions that persist ahead of the opening game against Ghana on June 16.
“I wouldn’t look that far into it,” said Altidore. “The national team has been very good over the past year or so. We’ve had some very good performances, especially in Europe. There are going to be some hiccups along the way.
"This is by far not the best game we’ve played in the last 10 or 12 games, but we’ll bounce back.“