Jozy Altidore's form is on the rise again after another injury-hit campaign
WASHINGTON -- One couldn't blame Jozy Altidore for having mixed emotions before his return to Gillette Stadium for Tuesday's high-profile friendly between the U.S. and mighty Brazil (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2/WatchESPN). After all, the cavernous venue in Foxborough, Massachusetts, has been something of a personal house of horrors for the U.S. striker over the past four months.
It was at Gillette where Altidore, playing for Toronto FC in a game against the New England Revolution, strained his right hamstring on May 16, an injury that sidelined the striker for five weeks right before July's Gold Cup. It was after an ineffective group stage game there against Haiti in that competition that U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann determined the injury layoff had robbed the 25-year-old of the fitness to contribute in the knockout rounds and sent him home. And it was last month in Foxborough that a frustrated Altidore was red-carded for kicking Revs defender Jose Goncalves, interrupting his quest to regain match fitness yet again.
Now Altidore returns to the scene of those incidents having scored five times in his past three games for club and country -- including Friday's two-goal, game-changing showing in the Americans' 2-1 win over Peru. But he admits he's not quite back to his best yet.
"I feel like I'm getting there," Altidore said following Friday's match. "A lot of people don't understand what it's like to have a big injury because they don't go though it."
Luck hasn't been on Altidore's side much over the past two years. He endured a nightmare first season at English Premier League club Sunderland in 2013-14 and after hitting his stride again with the U.S. just before the 2014 World Cup, an injury to his other hamstring limited him to just the first 23 minutes of his country's campaign in Brazil.
Then, as now, there was no available like-for-like replacement for his strengths -- namely his ability to serve as an outlet, create time and space for his teammates by holding the ball and relieving pressure -- and his loss created a domino effect that forced Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey out of position. Then the same thing happened again this summer.
"He's coming from a difficult couple of weeks or months with the Gold Cup and now getting back into rhythm in Toronto and coming off the bench here and there," Klinsmann said Friday.
The ups and downs are nothing new. The life of any striker is filled with them. But despite a highly respectable scoring rate of a goal every three games at the international level (he has 29 in 84 appearances for the U.S.), Altidore's downswings have taken on a disproportionate weight among many national team fans.
Klinsmann caused a stir last week when he suggested that many don't understand the sport's nuances. Saying it in the context of the Americans' horrendous Gold Cup left him open to criticism, but as a general statement, Klinsmann isn't wrong.
Plenty either don't recognize or look past the qualities Altidore brings even when he's not at his best. The heavy touch is obvious, but the way he wears down opposing defenders with his strength can be harder to spot. Some detractors go as far as to accuse him he's not trying. There may have been questions about Altidore's training habits early in his career, but current teammates have long been singing his praises.
"He's a guy sometimes it looks like he's lazy and sometimes he's maybe not fit," U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said the other night. "But I know him a little bit now, and I know he always looks forward and tries to help the team and tries to do his best."
Altidore bristles at questions about his confidence, insisting that it doesn't change with the weather. But he's human. His game has been under the microscope since he burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old and was immediately anointed the next big thing. Even if he's heard it all, it still stings.
The ex-striker Klinsmann has mostly maintained his faith in Altidore since being hired four years ago. He's been named captain in the absence of Dempsey or Bradley four times since the World Cup -- including against Peru, a responsibility that Klinsmann believes adds an edge to Altidore's game.
The coach knows that having a healthy, fit Altidore in the lineup will significantly increase his team's odds of beating Mexico next month and qualifying for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017. After missing six of the national team's last seven games against El Tri, Altidore is cautiously looking forward to Oct. 10.
"Hopefully I can get there," Altidore said. "I got to get there first, knock on wood. I haven't gotten the chance to play in a lot of big games against Mexico for whatever reason, so hopefully I can get out there if I'm fit and the manager picks me. And I hope I can help be the difference."
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.