BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, November 13, 2012
As the United States prepares to face Russia on Wednesday, all eyes will be on Jozy Altidore, who returns to the team after being dropped from the team with qualification on the line last month.
Altidore, 23, is having a breakout season in Holland with AZ Alkmaar where he has nine goals in 11 Eredivisie games and has a total of 12 goals across all competitions. On Saturday, he spectacularly scored against Den Haag that showed high degrees of skill, strength, and vision.
Now arriving in Russia as one of the team's hottest players, Altidore is excited to be back with the team.
"It's good," Altidore told YA. "Playing for the national team is obviously something that you can be really proud of and something you always want to do. It's nice to be back in the mix.
"I feel like I'm in a good moment right now. My body is feeling good and I'm not carrying any knocks. Whatever capacity I play on Wednesday, I'm going to try to make things happen," he said.
To say that the last month has been an interesting ride for Altidore would be an understatement. While the former Villarreal man has succeeded with AZ, most of the media attention around him has dealt with his relationship with US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Despite the impressive goal scoring run Altidore has been on, Klinsmann elected not to bring the striker into the team last month despite being crucial World Cup qualifiers. Klinsmann was public in his displeasure with Altidore's performance in recent qualifiers as well in training over the past 14 months.
Altidore insists that he took his controversial omission last month in stride
"I was okay," Altidore recalled. "Obviously any player wants to play for their country, especially in those important games. At the same time, I understood.
"He chose other options and that is how the game is at this level. There are a lot of guys who can step in and do the job. I took it for what it was and I didn't put my head down or anything like that. I just continued to work hard in order to control what I can control," he said.
Altidore is quick to downplay the constant speculation of his status of the national team, insisting that he never takes his national team status for granted and that there are times for any player where call ups would be difficult.
Instead, he remains focused on the future and knows that the only way he can ensure future appearances through continued production on the field.
"As a player, I always knew there would be a time when I'm not going to be first choice," Altidore explained. "I think people didn't expect it. I think they always expect the same old, same old. It's how you react to these things which will define you.
"All I can do is continue to work hard and make it harder for whatever coach to leave me off the team," he added.
Altidore is excited for the progress he has made this year as a player and attributes most of his recent development to the coaching and system he plays in Holland.
The Dutch media is full of praise for Altidore these days and it's not the number of goals he is scoring that is drawing attention but the quality of many of those goals. So far this season, he is scoring with his left foot regularly and making great runs into the box to create his own chances.
"I just think combination play - passing, moving, and trying to anticipate that next ball," Altidore said on where he has improved. "I think that's the biggest thing for me. I'm just always looking to combine and think that's an area I was good at before but I'm much better at now.
"Playing in this system [with AZ] helped me get that way. It's something that I just hope to build on. In the game today you have to be able to break a team down with good combination.
"This is not because of me," he added. "The environment I'm in - I've learned a lot. The training has been great and I'm surrounded by great guys who play a great system.
"There's no way I can take credit for anything without them. They train great and can play some fantastic football. I'm really lucky to be on a team like that. It's just made me a better soccer player overall. I'm not there yet but I'm improving," he admitted.
Now that he is in camp with the US team, he will aim to bring his recent success to a team filled with young players like Juan Agudelo, Josh Gatt, Timothy Chandler and Joe Gyau. While Altidore is roughly the same age as these players, he stands out like a true veteran after playing in the Gold Cup, Confederations Cup, Olympics, Under-20 World Cup and World Cup, along with qualifying.
When Altidore looks around at the new core of young players, he is excited for the team's future and is anxious to see what they can do on the field.
"To be honest, I'm thrilled," Altidore said. "I'm very excited to see these guys play. I'm excited we have so much young blood coming up. I'm also a fan of US Soccer. I'm always supporting the team and I want the federation to do well.
"We have so many young players playing all over the world that make a difference with their teams and are standout performers. I am very excited about that. I hope the best for those kids and if there is any way I can help them out, I'm going to try to that," he said.
So, while the last year has seen its share of ups and downs, Altidore will be looking on Wednesday to guide the US to a strong finish in 2012. A stout performance would likely restore his status as a key player on the national team and perhaps mark the first time in his career he is in stable situations with both his club and national teams.
In fact, few American players of Altidore's age have experienced as much as he has at this point their careers but the Jersey-born striker believes that the difficulties of his past have forged him into a stronger player.
"I've been through quite a bit at this tender age," Altidore contemplated. "At the time, I'm still a young guy who has a lot to learn. The more you think you know, the more you have to learn.
"For me it's always just putting myself in a position where I'm learning something different," he concluded.