Jozy Altidore happy to be back at home for U.S. men's team camp
CARSON, Calif. - The jet lag appeared to weigh heavily on Jozy Altidore as he eased into a chair at StubHub Center. After all, it was just two days since he arrived in Southern California to join the U.S. national team for its annual January camp. A few days prior, he was still in England, ready to finalize his move to Toronto FC.
But looked at another way, Altidore had recently shed plenty -- though by no means all -- of his baggage. His nightmarish spell with Sunderland is over. He is now back in the comfort zone of his international coaches and teammates, one that has almost always provided a respite from whatever struggles he might be going through at club level.
Without question, the more distance Altidore can put between himself and his time at the Stadium of Light, the better, though he went to great pains to speak well of his now former club.
"I think it was tough for everyone at Sunderland," he said. "If you go down the line, I don't think anybody has it easy there. It's a tough place to play -- there's no other way to put it. But I still was appreciative of it. The fans were fantastic, the stadium was great, and I thank everybody there for when I was there and how they treated me."
There did seem to be an understandable hint of regret from Altidore that he didn't perform better for the Black Cats. Without question, there were plenty of difficult circumstances outside of his control. The manager who brought him in, Paolo Di Canio, was fired a month into the 2013-2014 season. The team's style, which often saw Altidore playing as a lone striker, did him no favors, given his preference for proximity to a support striker.
"It didn't go as anybody planned," he said of his spell at the Stadium of Light. "There was ideas, a way to play, and after a month, it got thrown out the window. I don't think it was how anybody wanted it to go."
He later added, "I just don't think we fit. I didn't fit for Sunderland, and Sunderland didn't fit for me. Sometimes that happens. I tried to play in different ways, but it just didn't fit. I'm a certain player, and they play a certain way. Sometimes it just doesn't work out."
Yet there's no hiding from the grim numbers: three goals in a total of 50 appearances, with a solitary tally from 42 league encounters. His struggles in front of goal seemed almost Sisyphus-like. The harder he tried, the more likely he was to fail, even when presented with seemingly easy chances. Given such performances, it was no surprise Altidore's departure was determined to be the best course of action for all involved.
Whatever positives can be gleaned from Altidore's latest stay in England aren't easily visible and likely won't be until the goals start flowing for him again, though the Livingston, New Jersey, native insisted there were some to be had.
"A lot of times you play up front on your own, and you just have to, through will and drive, try to make something happen even for yourself or for your teammates," he said. "I think those are some things I took with me."
Now his Toronto adventure beckons. The U.S. international indicated Stuttgart and Lille were among the clubs that expressed interest, but the siren call of international soccer has always figured prominently in Altidore's calculus. At age 25, the current World Cup cycle will take place in the prime of his career, with plenty of opportunities to reveal there is more to his game than what he showed in England. That would only happen if Altidore could find steady playing time, and MLS provided the greatest guarantee in that regard.
"There's never been a time like this," he said. "You've got the Gold Cup, Copa America, the Confederations Cup and then the World Cup. It's the best time to be a national team player. It's the best time right now in our league. I felt like this was a good time to take the jump."
Altidore spoke of the challenge facing him in Toronto, how "to get that club off the ground would be something really special to me." That it would, but it's hardly unique. In fact, it sounds oddly familiar to the one he faced at Sunderland. The opportunity in Toronto seems like a do-over, a chance to rewrite the ending to the script. In this version, the club for which little goes right actually does join the elite.
That scenario could very well play out. Altidore will be playing for a side that, relatively speaking, figures to be more competitive, especially with Italian international Sebastian Giovinco set to join the club in July. If TFC can sort out the defensive frailties that have plagued it for so long, then success -- and plenty of goals for Altidore -- should follow.
At which point, Altidore can cast aside even more baggage.
U.S. Men's Team Notebook
- When it comes to spilling secrets, Jermaine Jones just can't help himself. In October, before the national team's 1-1 tie against Honduras, he dropped a hint about his surprise move to center-back. On Tuesday, Jones was at it again, telling reporters the U.S. has been practicing with a three-man back line of late. Jones said he's been serving as the sweeper in the middle of the defense. (Matt Besler, Matt Hedges and Steve Birnbaum have rotated as the marking backs.) Jones wasn't giving everything away, though. Asked if the U.S. played a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3, Jones, to laughter, replied, "You'll see."
"We try some stuff in training," Jones said. "If we do it in the Chile game or the Panama game, I don't know."
- Jurgen Klinsmann usually runs a tight ship, but he's allowed Jones and other Los Angeles-based players to stay at their homes, rather than at the team hotel, during this camp. Jones' special circumstances might have played a role in the decision. "Jurgen knows now is a time I can spend with the family," said Jones, who spent long stretches away from his wife and five children after signing with the New England Revolution in August.
Speaking of the Revs, the 33-year-old also said he's open to leaving the team he led to the 2014 MLS Cup final when his contract expires in December. "I will play this one season in Boston, and then we'll see what happens," he said. "I can go back to Europe and play there too."
- On several occasions, U.S. captain Clint Dempsey has spoken about his desire to compete in the 2016 Copa America, which will be hosted by the United States. But with almost a dozen of the players in this camp eligible to participate in the 2016 Summer Olympics, would he consider helping out the U-23 team in Rio (if the Yanks qualify) as one of three over-age players?
"To be honest with you, I haven't thought that much about the Olympics," Dempsey said in acknowledging he probably wouldn't be able to do both. "Nothing against the Olympics at all, but Copa America is a tournament I've always wanted to play in. Growing up, I'd watch that tournament and see that level of competition. I grew up loving that style of play, the South American style. To be able to play in that big tournament, having it be in the States, what better opportunity to try to do something special and win a major competition? So that would be awesome if I'm still around for that."
- While Dempsey, Jones and six other World Cup players are hard at work at camp, fellow Brazil 2014 vet Omar Gonzalez is hoping skipping the annual January camp for the first time in three years will help him more than being there would.
"He was very understanding," the LA Galaxy center-back said of Klinsmann's reaction to his request to skip the first two friendlies of the year. "Jurgen has always said he wants guys playing 10 to 11 months out of the year, and if you look at it, I did last year's January camp, got back from the Word Cup and ended up playing until Dec. 7," when the Galaxy won MLS Cup over Jones' New England squad. "One of the examples I said was look, Jermaine got to come back and hang out for a month after the World Cup," Gonzalez joked. "He also played a very long year -- making it to the final -- but he got that little break in the middle of the season. So I said maybe I can get my break now."
- Graham Zusi, another World Cup starter, would love to be involved with the U.S. team this month. But the Sporting Kansas City midfielder is still struggling with the injured right foot that ruled him out of the Yanks' final two games of 2014.
"I have a Grade 4 stress reaction, which is right before a stress fracture," said a noticeably frustrated Zusi, who has not been able to run at all this offseason. "It's been two months now, and it's not quite there yet. I want to be playing. I'm pretty limited in what I can do. I can bike, but the bike's not going to do it, really."