After a disappointing season with Sunderland, Jozy Altidore has his sights set on a successful World Cup. (Andres Leighton/AP)
STANFORD, Calif. — Jozy Altidore was calm during his first interactions with the media on Thursday at the U.S. pre-World Cup camp. That in itself was no surprise -- the U.S. striker is like that most of the time, no matter how he has been playing -- but Altidore did noticeably perk up when asked about coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s shift to a two-forward, diamond-midfield lineup from the start in the U.S.’ 2-2 tie with Mexico last month.
“It was awesome,” said Altidore, who was still in England with Sunderland at the time of the match since it wasn’t on a FIFA date. “I watched, and I thought the team was so fluid. That was great, the way everybody played. Mikey [Bradley] was fantastic. I thought it was a flawless performance in the first half.”
Altidore knows better than anyone that he’s more effective as a center forward if he has a true strike partner, and we have often seen that strategy in games where Klinsmann has shifted to a front two in the second half. But now it’s likely that Altidore will form a duo from the start of games with Clint Dempsey, and that has the 24-year-old looking forward to continuing to score goals with the U.S. after a brutally difficult first season at Sunderland.
A year ago at this time, we were asking why Altidore was scoring so prolifically at club level -- 23 goals in 21 league games at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands -- but couldn’t find the net with the national team. Now the situation is the opposite: Altidore is coming off a 2013 U.S. Player of the Year award (eight goals, tied for the team lead), but his scoring form has deserted him at club level. He had just one goal in 31 league games this past season, which puts him at two goals in 59 career Premier League appearances.
“It was tricky, but it was also good to sit back and see what I could do better, so I felt like I improved even though I wasn’t in the team,” Altidore said of his time spent mostly out of the starting lineup with Sunderland. “Bigger picture is we stayed up [to avoid relegation]. That’s most important.”
Altidore still managed to have an impact on Sunderland’s late-season rise -- and, it should be noted, the Premier League title race itself -- when he drew a penalty late at Chelsea that led to Sunderland’s stunning game-winner. But on Thursday he had a direct response when asked if there was a style of play at AZ that suited his game better.
“Obviously, yeah,” he said. “At Alkmaar they focused more on soccer play. I think that’s coincidentally why we [at Sunderland] stayed up. I think we went away from that safe direct play and we played a little bit more. We put teams on the back foot, and that’s why we created the chances we did and we stayed up at the end.”
Altidore said he spoke to Sunderland manager Gus Poyet before he left England, and that it was a good conversation. “He told me he expects me to be back,” said Altidore, who joined the Black Cats on a U.S.-record $13 million transfer last summer. “He said, ‘I know it didn’t go well for you, but I believe in you and I want to see you back here.’ So it was positive.”
For the past year, the U.S. team has been Altidore’s sanctuary, a place to regain confidence and score goals. He may not be an absolute lock to start in this World Cup, but one of the forward positions is his to lose at the moment.
“In your career in soccer, a lot of it is mental, man,” he said 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.
“I feel fine, I’m excited and I’m ready to work.”