FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Friday evening’s matchup with Haiti here in suburban Boston may be the least compelling of the U.S. national team’s CONCACAF Gold Cup slate, but it holds a couple layers of significance for American forward Jozy Altidore.
The U.S. should be well on its way to the quarterfinals and got what likely will be its toughest group stage game out of the way on Tuesday, defeating Honduras 2–1 in Frisco, Texas. That match was notable for the Americans’ inability to establish possession against a frenetic foe, their ability to win anyway and the contrasting fortunes of the starting forwards.
While Clint Dempsey removed any doubt that his U.S. Open Cup suspension, and the subsequent loss of his national team captaincy, might affect his play (he scored both goals), Altidore’s evening was uneven. He was involved in the opening goal—Dempsey converted the rebound off Altidore’s saved shot—but he failed to make a consistent impact and was removed in the 59th minute.
The Honduran defense certainly was partly to blame for Altidore’s relatively quiet evening. The U.S. didn’t have much of the ball in the attacking half, and Los Catrachos played with five in the back. But Altidore hasn’t been quite himself lately, either. The 25-year-old forward hasn’t played a 90-minute match in two months. Since injuring his hamstring May 16, he’s made just four appearances for Toronto FC, scoring once, and has played two games for the U.S. (both in the past week). He missed the April win over Mexico and then the trip to Amsterdam and Cologne last month.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s faith in Altidore was confirmed by the decision to start him against Honduras, but the manager admitted that part of the reason was to help Altidore regain his fitness and form.
“Jozy is still in a phase where we have to build him after his hamstring, and the only way we’re going to get him stronger every day is by giving him minutes, playing him, and by working him hard also in training,” Klinsmann said. “Jozy will improve every day in this tournament. He’s not there yet, which we knew. We’ll kind of do everything possible to get him to the top form as quickly as possible.”
Altidore’s had some hard luck in recent tournaments. His trajectory remains promising, and he’s been brilliant at times for Toronto (six goals in 10 MLS starts). He already is the fifth leading scorer in U.S. history with 27 goals. But those waiting for the burly striker to take control of a major competition have been left frustrated. He whet the appetite with a goal against Spain as a 19-year-old at the 2009 Confederations Cup, then went scoreless the following year in South Africa. He was rounding into form at the 2011 Gold Cup, scoring two goals in three games, then hurt his hamstring in the quarterfinals. Another hamstring injury knocked him out of last year’s World Cup after only 22 minutes, and he’s entering this Gold Cup at less than 100 percent.
“Hopefully sooner rather than later,” Altidore said prior to Thursday’s practice at Gillette Stadium when asked about the timing of his return to full speed. “It’s always tough when you have to play catch-up, especially in a competition like this, where there’s not much time [between games]. At the end of the day, I’m happy to be here to help the team. I’m not the guy that’s going to say, ‘I’m not going to come in at all,’ and do that type of thing. I’m happy to be here and any part I can play, I’m happy to play.”
If he hopes to play a big part in helping the U.S. win its sixth continental title and finally put his stamp on a major tournament, a good performance on Thursday may be key. The bigger games will come quickly, and getting Altidore healthy will cease to be as much of a concern in a win-or-go-home scenario. Time is a factor. There's competition for minutes as well. Klinsmann said later Thursday that “there are a lot of 50/50 situations on the table” regarding lineup choices, and that those on the 23-man roster won’t want to risk being replaced following the group stage. Each coach can make six changes ahead of the quarterfinals.
“We have Jozy, who came from an injury. We build him. We play him. We build him, and we hope this kind of gels more and more with every game,” Klinsmann said Thursday. Altidore is worth waiting for, but Klinsmann can wait only so long.
Altidore has an additional incentive to show well on Friday. He’s been outspoken for years about his pride in his Haitian roots. His parents moved from Haiti to northern New Jersey, where Altidore was born, and then to Boca Raton, Florida, where he took to soccer.
“Some of the first games I ever went to professionally were the Haitian national team games, men or women,” Altidore said Thursday. “I’ve been supporting them since I was young. It’ll be nice to play against them.”
During a May conference call with reporters, Altidore said, “I think the fact that they were out of Haiti didn’t take the Haiti out of [my parents], if that makes sense. We were brought up in a Haitian household in terms of the food we ate, how we were disciplined. Just everything about us was still Haitian, even though we lived in the U.S. … My parents were just so proud of where they came from, and it made us proud of where they came from. It was celebrated every day.”
The U.S. has played Haiti only once since Altidore turned professional, a 2–2 Gold Cup draw in 2009 in, of all places, Gillette Stadium. He wasn’t on the Gold Cup roster that year because of his trip to the Confederations Cup.
Altidore has been supporting Haiti as an adult as well. He’s worn a wristband that features the U.S. and Haitian flags during games, and there’s been more meaningful gestures behind the scenes. In 2010, he appealed for donations following the devastating January earthquake. Last year the Jozy Altidore Foundation worked with Generosity Water and raised money to build a well in Haiti that provides clean water to a village of more than 400 people, and he said Thursday that he hopes to announce additional initiatives soon.
“I’m always doing stuff,” he said. “I’m always making donations myself and taking donations. I’m working on the next project right now and hopefully I’ll have some news for that in the future. I’m looking forward to the game and to seeing all the Haitian fans tomorrow. It’ll be nice.”
But he hasn’t lost sight of the bigger professional picture. In May, he called the prospect of playing Haiti “surreal.” Now, with the tournament underway and his Gold Cup fitness uncertain, his focus has narrowed.
“It’s like any other game,” Altidore said Thursday. “Obviously there’s maybe a little more to it, but I haven’t had time to think about it much. I’m just looking forward to playing another game in the Gold Cup.”