We Should All Be Rooting For Jozy Altidore’s Unlikely USMNT Comeback
When Jozy Altidore surprised most of the American Soccer landscape this week by accepting a loan from the MLS’ New England Revolution to Puebla of LigaMX, he was sending a clear message: I’m still here.
Obviously, the intended target first and foremost is U.S. national team manager Gregg Berhalter, who probably has most of his 26-man 2022 FIFA World Cup squad ironed out, but still faces massive questions at the center forward position.
Even though Altidore hasn’t played a competitive game for the U.S. since the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, he clearly wants to get his club form to the point he could be considered again when there are few other certain options. That apparently wasn’t going to be allowed happen with the signing of Giacomo Vrioni to replace recently France-bound striker Adam Buksa in New England.
But American national team supporters would also do well to recognize that if Altidore, now 32, could recapture two-thirds of his peak form, he might yet provide real help to a program that clearly means a lot to him. And that wants to is deeply admirable considering the unfair share of the blame he has received for its worst period in recent history, when the U.S. failed to quality for the previous 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Altidore and his former Toronto FC teammate Michael Bradley became the face of the that debacle as the most consistently appearing players over the 2018 cycle. But in hindsight, it’s an awful heavy burden to bear when looking at the others who surrounded them, the least talented American squad in at least two decades.
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After Altidore and Bradley, the next most-used player was Christian Pulisic. He was clearly the program’s brightest talent player, but still only 19 by the time of that infamous night in Couva. After that? Striker Bobby Wood, who is still in his 20s has averaged only 0.28 goals per 90 minutes in MLS since joining Real Salt Lake last season. After that? Omar Gonzalez, who at age 34 — when many center backs still excel — is now mostly a depth piece with the New England Revolution. Landon Donovan had been long separated from the program at that point, and while Clint Dempsey was still involved, he was well past his peak at age 35.
And like Bradley, Altidore had some awful important moments in an American shirt that are too easily forgotten. It was Altidore who opened the scoring in one of the biggest upsets in program history, a 2-0 victory over Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. A few months later, he scored a sneakily important winner at home against El Salvador to ease the tension in the Americans’ qualifying bid for 2010 in South Africa.
And when the Americans got there, it was Altidore who made the perfectly weighted run and sent in the inch-perfect cross leading to Dempsey’s initial shot, which begat the rebound that became Donovan’s famous game-winning goal against Algeria.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil had a chance to be Altidore’s seminal moment. Instead, muscle injuries that have hampered much of the back half of Altidore’s career ended his tournament after 22 minutes against Ghana. Then came the 2018 cycle, where the problems — if we’re honest — were bigger than Altidore, Bradley or Bruce Arena could solve.
But that’s another thing about this 2022 group. If Altidore could find regular time and some steady production at Puebla, and get onto the roster, he wouldn’t need to do nearly as much to be considered effective as he would have on that 2018 squad. The core of Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson are a couple classes above the players providing service in the attacking half on those squads. And Berhalter’s other candidates at striker — Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok — don’t possess Altidore’s combination of physicality and technicality when he was at his best.
Even if he’s not a candidate to start, a version of Altidore who can be close to that player again for 15 to 30 minutes would be a very useful tool for Berhalter to have in a tournament where it’s very likely at some point his team will be seeking a late goal.
None of this is to say Altidore getting on the plante to Qatar is likely. The truth is he has played more than 1,000 minutes and scored double digit goals only once at the club level in the last five seasons. That’s the same reason he doesn’t get considered in the same breath as other greats — because that unavailability slowed his pursuit of Donovan and Dempsey on the U.S. all-time scoring charts.
And while Puebla might offer more of a playing opportunity than the Revolution right now, there weren’t many signs he was close to a breakthrough when he was on the field for the Revs.
But just maybe, with the right setup and right opportunity, one could be unlocked just in time to earn a September call-up and then an intuitive choice by Berhalter to take the veteran along. If Altidore can defy the odds and find a way to make the choice difficult, American fans should be rooting for him.