SÃO PAULO — The first sight that greeted the media when we arrived at U.S. training here after a long flight from Recife on Friday was Jozy Altidore jogging around the perimeter of the practice field at São Paulo FC. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the fact he was doing it (and without limping) suggested Altidore might be ready after his hamstring strain in the opening World Cup match against Ghana to return in the round of 16 clash against Belgium on Tuesday.
“We are very optimistic,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Friday. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now [since the injury], and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.”
Granted, Altidore hasn’t yet begun full training with the rest of the U.S. team. And granted, it seems unlikely he’d be able to go 90 minutes on Tuesday. But his presence, either as a 60-minute or 30-minute player, could make a huge difference for a U.S. team that could really use Altidore—and not just for his goal-scoring.
That was readily apparent when I pulled aside U.S. assistant coach Andi Herzog in the mixed zone following the U.S.’s 1-0 loss to Germany on Friday. Herzog is my go-to guy when it comes to explaining the U.S. team’s tactical strategies, and after a quick talk about the game and the U.S.’s advancement (“the best loss I’ve ever had!” he said), Herzog was quick to answer when I asked about the most important areas for the U.S. to improve against Belgium.
“Just a simple answer would be Jozy Altidore up front,” he replied. “Because he was our big guy with Clint [Dempsey] and behind him. Now we lost this weapon, and overall after his injury we did well, but today we struggled to play out of the back, to have better possession on the field. We have to do a better job in the next game.”
To hear Herzog describe it, Altidore’s absence has made it a lot harder for the U.S. to possess the ball and in particular made Michael Bradley’s job as the attacking central midfielder much more difficult. “It’s now a different game because Jozy was our target player with speed and power,” Herzog explained. “Clint is a totally different type of player [than Altidore up top]. We have to find the right balance for the next game.”
A U.S. Soccer spokesman said Friday was Altidore’s third day of running on the side without participating in full training. In addition, Altidore did several stretches of his hamstring with the team's training staff. His readiness for Belgium on Tuesday is a matter of timing. Will there be enough before kickoff? But in this regard, Altidore may have gotten lucky that the U.S. finished second in the group instead of first.
Had the U.S. won Group G, the Americans would be playing on Monday. Now they’ve got Belgium on Tuesday—and 24 more hours for him to be ready.