STANFORD, Calif. – When Jozy Altidore strolled into camp for the US national team this week, he faced a situation strikingly similar to the one that greeted ahead of his first World Cup four years ago.
Once again, he’s in a high-profile career limbo in Europe, and all the same questions keep coming back about how he muster the confidence to carry on as the Americans’ top scoring threat on the world’s biggest stage.
Altidore answered them all on Thursday before the team’s workout at Stanford University, but stuck to a stern-faced response when asked if his recent struggles would sink him in Brazil: “I’m not concerned at all.”
It’s hard to believe that, at just 24 years old, Altidore has already seen all of this before and faced down the same career crisis, but it’s true. When he was called into camp in 2010, he had spent the better part of the previous year languishing with English Premier League strugglers Hull City, battling to live up to his lofty potential but never quite making his mark in England.
Now he’s in a similarly sticky spot with Sunderland, the EPL club that forked over a reported $13 million transfer fee for him in October. Although he was fresh off the best club year of his career with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar when he made the move, his Sunderland stay has been problematic at best and, to his critics, catastrophic.
For Altidore, however, it’s all just part of the game.
“In your career in soccer, a lot of it is mental, man,” he told reporters at US national team camp on Thursday. “You’ve got to stay strong in the tough moments, because there are going to be a lot of them. But in the good moments you can’t get too high, and in the low moments you can’t get too low.”
Part of Altidore’s confidence assuredly comes from the fact that no one has been better at putting the ball in the back of the net in big games for the US in the past year. He scored eight goals in 2013 – four in crucial World Cup qualifiers – and earned his first career US Player of the Year award, proof that the time has come that Altidore – and not Seattle Sounders star Clint Dempsey or LA Galaxy hero Landon Donovan – could be the key piece of the puzzle for the Americans in Brazil.
“We believe that Jozy can play a very big World Cup,” Klinsmann said earlier this week. “Obviously he has to work the next couple of weeks to confirm our trust, which we think he will absolutely do.”
But while Altidore is all but assured a starting spot for the Americans in Brazil, his standing with Sunderland is less concrete. Black Cats manager Gus Poyet said this week that while he likes and supports Altidore, he questioned whether the pace in England or a striker’s simple tough luck held him to just one goal in 31 league games and forced him off the gameday roster at times this season.
“Something is, of course, not working for us with Jozy,” Poyet said.
Altidore said Thursday that he had a positive conversation with Poyet before leaving England and that the club expects him back after the World Cup.
“He said, ‘I know it didn’t go well for you, but I believe in you and I want to see you back here,’” Altidore said. “So it was positive.”
As for all that history Altidore has with his fans and his critics alike, it means little now that camp is underway and the World Cup lies weeks away.
“It matters what you do going forward,” he said. “Nobody cares about what you did a year or two or three years ago. It’s what you do now that matters.”