With no World Cup for US this year, Altidore shifts focus
For Jozy Altidore, this was supposed to be the time when the United States was preparing for this summer's World Cup. That changed early in October when the Americans got bounced from the tournament.
The stunning failure shifted Altidore's focus.
He spent the beginning of 2018 in Grand Cayman, where his foundation is bringing soccer to kids in a region hit by hurricanes last fall. Soon, he'll start the new season with defending MLS Cup champion Toronto FC.
As for this summer? Altidore will watch a few of the matches in Russia on television. The 28-year-old forward isn't stewing in the loss, he's looking with hope to the future.
''Of course I'll obviously be disappointed not to be there, but at the end of the day, man, we're blessed to do what we do,'' he said.
Apart from the national team loss, Altidore is coming off one of the better years of his career. He scored 18 goals with the Reds and another four with the U.S. national team. Toronto FC won the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record before sweeping through the playoffs and defeating Seattle 2-0 for the league title. Altidore scored in the final and earned MLS Cup MVP honors.
The victory was a bit of revenge for a loss to the Sounders for the MLS Cup the previous season, but Altidore said Toronto's motivation was part of a season-long journey he took with his teammates and coach Greg Vanney.
''I think more than anything we understood how close we were and how it hurt that we had come up short that season,'' he said. ''The focus for us was to do what we did that last year and if we got to the last game, obviously make sure we got the W and make the most of our chances.''
Toronto teammate and fellow national team player, Michael Bradley, echoed the sentiment after the title match.
''When push comes to shove, you want to step into the biggest moments with people that you would do anything for, that you love, that you believe in, that you trust, that you know have your back,'' Bradley said.
But it wasn't all smooth. Altidore got into a confrontation with New York Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan in a tunnel at BMO Field during the conference semifinals. Altidore and Kljestan were handed red cards in the aftermath.
Altidore sat out Toronto's next game, while Kljestan was suspended an additional game and won't be able to play the first two games of the upcoming season. Kljestan, who was also fined, was traded in the offseason from the Red Bulls to Orlando.
Altidore and Bradley were also jeered - sometimes with profane and personal attacks - by opposing fans over the U.S. team's qualifying performance.
''Look, all that stuff I think would have been magnified had we not achieved our objective,'' Altidore said. ''But we did, and we did it in such a convincing manner.''
Following the 2-1 U.S. loss in Couva, Trinidad, that cost the national team a spot in the World Cup, coach Bruce Arena stepped down and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati said he would not run for another term.
Interim U.S. coach Dave Sarachan called 30 players into January training camp in advance of an exhibition game against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Jan. 28 in Carson, California. Altidore and many of the team's veterans were not invited.
The camp roster includes 15 players who have never played in a match for the senior national team. The most experienced was LA Galaxy midfielder Gyasi Zardes, who is 26. Twenty-one of the players are 24 and younger.
Altidore, who has 41 goals in 110 appearances with the national team, understands that developing young talent is important heading into the next World Cup quadrennial. ''We have to do a better job of identifying new talent, for sure,'' he said, suggesting that missing out on the past two Olympics - where under-23 teams compete - has hurt development efforts.
For now, Altidore is pouring his energy into charitable endeavors.
Altidore, whose parents are from Haiti, launched his foundation in 2011 following the devastating earthquake that hit the country the year before. The foundation built a well to provide water to a town of more than 400 in Haiti, along with other rebuilding efforts. In 2016, he paid to bring the Copa America matches to television in the country.
The latest effort in the Cayman Islands focuses on getting youth involved in soccer.
''I think the whole region, the Caribbean has a lot of talent and has a lot of kids who want to become players. And I think it helps to see and identify with players who have played in different leagues from around the world,'' he said. ''If I'm able to be one of those guys that can start that whole thing, it's a great opportunity and honor for me.''