Altidore leads USA strikers looking to end statistical World Cup drought
MAY 30, 2014 8:00p ET
NEW YORK --
It's been a dozen years since an American listed as a forward has scored a goal at a World Cup. Brian McBride was the last to do it, in the Round of 16 of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea. That was three World Cups and eight World Cup games ago. It's a striking statistical tidbit, if you'll excuse the pun. But it may not be an altogether fair one.
Questioning whether this is an aberration or a trend is valid. Chris Wondolowski, the veteran San Jose Earthquakes striker who surprisingly made his first World Cup roster, has some cogent thoughts on the matter. "I think the sample size is too small," he said. "And in the last World Cup, it was pretty staggering the amount of goals that were scored off set pieces, and that usually involves a lot of midfielders or defenders. A lot of that plays into it."
Still, this is a drought that every American striker on the roster for this year's edition of soccer's big dance in Brazil is faced with, and asked to answer for, to some extent. Jozy Altidore looked downright bored when he was asked if he thought the statistic significant at the United States men's national team's media day in New York City. "Absolutely not," he said, before raising his gaze to signify that he was ready for the next question.
It's true, as Wondolowski suggests, that as the game evolves, the onus of scoring is less and less on the strikers. But if the Americans hope to advance from their deathly group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana, they sure could use some productivity out of the front line. And so, as so very often in the run-up to this World Cup, we circle back to talking about Altidore and his form.
The story is well-worn by now. During the 2012-13 season, he was given free reign at an all-you-can-eat buffet of scoring chances at AZ Alkmaar of the Eredivisie and gobbled up 31 goals -- a record for an American abroad. Upon joining up with the national team last summer, he quickly ended a 2-year leave from scoring for his country and hammered in seven goals in five games.
Then came the high-priced, high-profile move to Sunderland of the Barclays Premier League. On a club fighting relegation, which fired erratic manager Paolo Di Canio who had bought him by October, Altidore was put on a starvation diet of goal opportunities. He may not have had five clear-cut chances all season -- as many as he would sometimes get in a single game at AZ. He scored just twice all year.
"It was a tough one," Altidore said. "I think it was for not only me but everyone involved at the club. It wasn't easy. A lot of changes went on [at Sunderland] during the year. It was emotionally tough as well. It was a learning experience. It's not always going to go how you think it's going to go. I had a picture in my mind of how Sunderland would go and it quickly went out the window with the coach getting fired."
So now there is concern, especially with Landon Donovan not on the team -- to the consternation of many fans. Donovan scored three of the five USA goals at the last World Cup and his five career tallies on the world stage are the most of any American.
In order to believe that Altidore's club season won't prevent a productive World Cup campaign with his country, however, you first have to accept that form for club and country are different things. Altidore certainly does. "I'd be a fool not to," he said. "I think a lot of players play good for their club and then don't with their country and vice versa. You see that all the time. They're two different teams in their own right that play differently. It's only normal that a lot of players have success with either/or."
"When I play with the national team I play with a bunch of guys I've played with for five or six years, that know me very well," Altidore continued. "We seem to feed off that. I think a lot of guys when they come into the national team, in this group, tend to play better than they do at their clubs. On the national team I feel like the guys are trying to give me touches, like I'm on the ball a bit more. I'm just able to be a different type of player."
Fellow forward Aron Johannsson replaced Altidore as AZ's striker last summer and had his own bumper season with 26 goals. He, too, makes a distinction between domestic and international soccer. "It's two different clubs," he said. "Here [Altidore] gets more chances, playing time and confidence from the team and coaching staff. He's not playing bad [at Sunderland]. He's playing good, but he's just missing that one point: scoring a goal."
That confidence seems to be the key. Altidore is undisputed as the USA's target striker. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said again and again that he's part of the team's five-man core. There is no $15 million transfer fee hanging over his head, demanding to be repaid in goals. Instead, there is the credit he built by scoring 21 international goals for the USA by age 24 -- tied for sixth all-time.
His teammates on the national team don't hesitate to go to bat for him. "Jozy is an unbelievable player," says veteran left back DaMarcus Beasley. "When you watch the man in training, his skill, he has something that no other forward has. He's strong, he can finish. Every forward goes through a tough time in scoring, every one. There's not one forward in history [who hasn't]."
Klinsmann, a former world-class striker himself, knows what it's like to live through a scoring drought. And he thinks that his abiding trust in his striker will yield dividends soon. "I think Jozy has a very special World Cup ahead of him," he said. 'Where he can prove a point."
A point for himself, and the entire American corps of strikers.