Even if you’re the most ardent, bandanna-wearing member of the American Outlaws you’d probably have to concede that Jozy Altidore’s tenure at Sunderland has turned into a total flop. At the start of the 2013-14 Premier League season, it was easy to minimize the blame for Altidore: then-manager Paolo Di Canio didn’t know what he was doing, or Sunderland is atrocious and the club’s struggles are hardly the American striker’s fault.
As we zero in on the World Cup, it’s harder to make excuses for Altidore’s lack of goals. What looked like the proper move in Altidore’s career trajectory in the summer has instead proved to be mostly a disaster. (Admission: back in August I thought he’d score double-digit goals.)
The Sunderland fans and media have already sharpened up the knives toward the New Jersey native. The next domino will be American fans worrying about Altidore’s performance and how it relates to Jurgen Klinsmann’s National Team. He has but two goals to his name at Sunderland, one in the League Cup back in August vs. lower league opposition, and the other vs. Chelsea in December. That’s not exactly the resume of a guy you want leading the attacking line at a World Cup, is it?
The track record here is that Altidore — as he bounced from club to club in Europe — was briefly dropped from the U.S. squad and went nearly two years without an international goal from 2011-2013. When Altidore found a home at AZ in the Netherlands last season, where he scored 31 goals — a record for Americans in Europe — that form carried over to the National Team. Altidore scored in five straight games from late May to August, including a spectacular hat trick performance in a friendly vs. Bosnia.
It’s probably going to be up to Altidore himself to improve on his poor track in English soccer, which now stands at a paltry four goals in 56 appearances for Hull City and Sunderland. On the plus side, Altidore is still getting some minutes under new Sunderland manager Gus Poyet. In the team’s semifinals upset of Manchester United in the League Cup Altidore played in both legs, albeit as a sub each time.
Still the club recalled Connor Wickham — himself another disappointment — from a loan spell, meaning Altidore now needs to fight for minutes with Stephen Fletcher and Fabio Borini at striker. Since November, Sunderland have only started a game with two strikers on the field once — a pairing of Altidore and Fletcher — and it lost that game in December to Tottenham. More than likely, Altidore’s remaining minutes are going to come off the bench. (Altidore was included in the starting lineup in Sunderland’s Wednesday match with Stoke City, an encouraging sign.)
Sunderland will be fighting to stave off relegation the rest of the season, so unless Altidore shows rapid improvement the club isn’t going to field a striker who doesn’t score goals, and in mid-January had committed 32 fouls compared to only nine tackles won. As we’ve seen Altidore isn’t at his best isolated alone at the top of an attack, but he’s also struggled to cash in on the limited opportunities in front of goal.
Add it up and Altidore’s options in the next few days are quite limited:
- Look for a short-term loan, likely to a team in the English Championship as Brek Shea did.
- Follow in the footsteps of Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley and return to MLS.
- Grind it out at Sunderland.
Sunderland paid $13 million for him in the summer and wouldn’t want to take a loss selling him after seven unimpressive months. You’d think his old club — AZ — wouldn’t mind having him back, but it’s replaced him with U.S. teammate Aron Johannson and hasn’t looked back.
Realistically when you couple Altidore’s struggles and Dempsey’s dip in form since moving to Seattle, Klinsmann might need to get a little more creative when the U.S. faces Ghana in June, or at least come up with a solid Plan B if his presumed top two scoring threats continue to misfire. There’s always a chance that Alexi Lalas’ “form is fallacy” line comes into play and once Altidore comes into the U.S. pre-World Cup camp in May that all his Sunderland struggles melt away. Even so, American fans have a right to be concerned the longer Altidore’s malaise at Sunderland continues.