Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
SALVADOR, Brazil — Twenty-three minutes, no goals and an injury. This was not the World Cup that Jozy Altidore envisioned.
The U.S. Men’s National Team was eliminated from the tournament by Belgium in the Round of 16 on Tuesday night, leaving Altidore with even more disappointment than most of his teammates. The 24-year-old forward suffered a left hamstring strain 21 minutes into the Americans’ opener against Ghana, was replaced two minutes later and never returned to action.
He had made recent strides in his recovery, but it was too late, and Altidore was near the bottom of the U.S. roster in minutes played. Being close to a recovery but not getting back to full health before the Americans were bounced out of the World Cup was a bitter pill to swallow for Altidore, but it also helped him realize what playing in the tournament means to him, he said.
“As you get older you start to see things from a different perspective,” said Altidore. “Sitting aside kind of helped me see how important this is to me and how much I want to be here.”
Regardless of what U.S. Soccer said about his availability on its social networks the day before the Belgium test, Altidore was never really a serious candidate to play in the 2-1 extra time loss. It was evident in the pre-game warm-ups at Arena Fonte Nova when Altidore did very light work with the ball, and U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann admitted after the match that his first-choice striker was not yet ready.
Altidore’s absence was felt in the match and throughout the tournament and so too was the lack of a natural replacement. Klinsmann was forced to fill Altidore’s spot by taking Clint Dempsey — one of the U.S.’s more creative players — and throwing him up top to spearhead the attack. Dempsey did an admirable job and scored a goal while serving as the lone striker, but deploying him up top instead of in the midfield meant he would see much less of the ball.
That played a role in the U.S.’s struggles to maintain possession throughout the tournament, but Altidore was still impressed and happy with what he saw from his teammates.
“I’m very proud,” Altidore said. “When you look at the group, the way we came out of the group, the way we at times dominated the Portugal game, teams we were supposed to have no chance of beating. But I think now the belief has to be — we’re going to have chances against these teams, we know that — now about improving our players, improving our league so when we get to these tournaments we can make a difference.”
Altidore will be just 28 years old in four years, putting him in his prime for the World Cup in Russia. He hopes to be there leading the U.S. attack, much in the same way that he was supposed to this summer before an unfortunate injury killed his chances to make that happen.
“It’s something really hard to take obviously because it only comes around every four years,” said Altidore. “But at the same time I’m happy seeing the young guys get to see what it’s all about, just how much it means. Hopefully, we’ll come back strong.”