Thirteen years—that's a solid career. To overcome the competition, the distractions, the passage of time, injuries and so many other potential hurdles to play for that long at the very highest level requires a lot of talent, a ton of perseverance and a dose of good fortune. Few manage it. Those who do have every reason to feel content.
We have an innate sense of an average athlete’s top-tier lifespan, of how long his or her biological clock should permit competing at a world-class level. It’s how coaches and GMs know when to start scouting for replacements. It’s why we marvel at the likes of Tom Brady and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who’ve each shattered that ceiling. And it’s why, in this era of emerging talent and fresh faces on the U.S. national team, it might seem to some like Jozy Altidore, who earned his first senior cap way back in 2007, should be moving on.
It feels like he’s been around forever. Altidore has transcended eras, along with five head coaches. He’s the ninth-most-capped player in program history and if the USA had qualified for the 2018 World Cup, it would have been his third. As the generation that peaked in Brazil then fell three years later in Couva fades away, succeeded by a cohort that’s making unprecedented waves at the sport’s most prestigious clubs, Altidore remains the one who’s still hanging on, refusing to take his leave or cede his place to the passage of time.
He’s doing it by sticking with what got him this far, while reminding us that being around forever doesn’t mean you’re old. Altidore got an early international start, earning his first cap a few days after turning 18. He’s still only 31 and believes he’s still very much in his prime.
“I think this is interesting,” he said from Florida, where he’s the eldest member of the patchwork U.S. team preparing for Sunday’s friendly against Trinidad & Tobago. “In MLS and U.S. soccer, we love to call players like myself old. But if you look in Europe, some of the very best performers are older than me. And so, I just think that’s a very MLS and kind of a U.S. journalist’s mentality, this notion that I’m all of a sudden old, when [Robert] Lewandowski is 30-something.”
Lewandowski, the FIFA player of the year, is 32. Ibrahimovic is 39 and Cristiano Ronaldo is 35. Indeed, it’s possible to play, and even dominate, at the highest level well into one’s 30s. But Altidore’s recent past hasn’t been dominant. He recovered well from the World Cup qualifying setback in 2017 and helped power Toronto FC to an unprecedented treble that was finished off by the club’s first MLS Cup title (he scored the game-winner). But there was hardship along the way, as he was booed and jeered by fans scapegoating him for the Couva disaster. A particularly ugly incident occurred at Red Bull Arena, the home of his first pro club and close to where he was born.
“I’m a villain in my own country, and I accept it,” he told Sports Illustrated a couple of years ago.
Altidore started only 12 MLS matches for TFC in 2018, and he didn’t play for the USA again until the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup. But he told Sports Illustrated this week that his commitment to the national team and his interest in representing his country never wavered, even if others’ confidence in him did.
“It’s been the greatest joy of my career to put on the national team shirt,” he said. “There’s disappointment and tough moments, but it's been the biggest pleasure for me. It remains that way, and those challenges happen. It’s how you bounce back from it, and how you respond as a soccer nation, as a federation and as individuals. It’s always been a great joy for me and that hasn’t changed today.”
So after another difficult season with TFC, during which his club was forced to base itself in Connecticut for two months and he tallied only two goals in 14 total appearances, Altidore committed himself to the USA’s three-week camp. Most of the men called in were U-23 players preparing for Olympic qualifying, and on Sunday evening at Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium, Altidore will have almost as many caps as the rest of the 25-man roster combined. This exercise was not beneath him, however. He wants to play a key role in the busy international year ahead, and sees each and every chance to prove himself at this level as an opportunity that can’t be passed up.
“It’s an invite into the national team,” he said of this month’s camp. “You don't pick and choose when you play for the national team. So to have the opportunity to receive a call-up is an honor. I still get the same excitement I did when I was 18. January camps aren’t very easy, but like I said, it’s the national team and when the national team calls, if you’re able to go you want to go.”
He wanted to go, and he’s clearly wanted. Injuries have been Altidore’s biggest issue. It’s never been a question of ability.
“What I would say is just looking at the striker position in general, I think you have Jozy Altidore, who is probably still the most talented that we have in that position, but he’s got fitness issues,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told MLS’s Extratime podcast in October. “He’s still an amazingly talented player, so our goal there is to keep working with him.”
Indeed, striker remains the primary spot at which the national team’s next generation has yet to really break through. Gyasi Zardes is the only other experienced veteran, while the likes of Josh Sargent, Nicholas Gioacchini, Sebastian Soto and now Matthew Hoppe are trying to make their way abroad. Berhalter also has looked at Daryl Dike, Chris Mueller, Ayo Akinola and others over the past year, perhaps hoping one might eventually develop the skills and presence that Altidore has when he’s at his best. That version of Altidore, the one who’s the national team’s third all-time leading goal scorer, probably remains the USA’s brightest prospect at the position.
Berhalter said this week that while it took a few days for Altidore to get fit, his work ethic, experience and maturity have been an asset during a camp featuring so many younger players. And as for Altidore’s hopes for the year ahead, Berhalter said, “In general we want players that are striving to be starters. We don’t want players that are comfortable playing a substitute role. We want them pushing to be starters. We think the competition is good for the team, and anyone we bring in hopefully has the potential to be a starter on this team. That’s why they’re included in the squad.”
Ask Altidore to look ahead, however, and he’ll have none of it. He’s not thinking about a 2021 that’ll feature the inaugural Concacaf Nations League finals, a Gold Cup and then the start of World Cup qualifying. Playing in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, where he’ll be newly 33, remains more of an amorphous aspiration. His career, from his early start with the Red Bulls to his record-breaking transfer to Villarreal, and from that memorable Confederations Cup semifinal goal against Spain to the injury that knocked him out of the 2014 World Cup, shows that absolutely nothing is predictable. There is no pattern. He's played just 264 national team minutes since Couva, the equivalent of about three games in three years. Yet he is in position to remain a vital part of Berhalter's plans–not because of or despite his experience or age, but because he's capable of deserving it that day. That’s how he’s approaching this camp and this year.
“I don’t expect anything. There are no gimmes,” he said. “It’s not like you’re on the national team now and that means you’re on the team next year. It’s you're on the team today, and you try to make the most of that opportunity. You try to give as much as you can to the team and the guys around you, and that’s what it is. For me, this year and going forward, I’m just living in the present and I’m taking it one day at a time, because nobody knows what's going to happen now, in two weeks, in three months, in the next two years. It’s an honor to be here and I’m trying to give my best every single day.”