We should all be cheering for Jozy Altidore’s unlikely USMNT return

When Jozy Altidore surprised most of the American football landscape this week by accepting a loan from MLS’s New England Revolution in Puebla de LigaMX, he sent a clear message: I’m still here.

Clearly, the intended target is first and foremost US national team manager Gregg Berhalter, who has likely knocked out the bulk of his 26-man squad for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but is still facing… huge questions at the centre-forward position.

Even though Altidore hasn’t played a competitive match for the United States since the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup, he clearly wants his club’s form to be such that they could be considered again while there. few other options. That apparently wasn’t going to happen with the signing of Giacomo Vrioni to replace recently-linked France striker Adam Buksa in New England.

But US national team fans would also do well to recognize that if Altidore, now 32, can return to two-thirds of his peak form, he could still be a real help to a program that clearly means a lot for him. And that is deeply admirable considering the unfair share of blame he received for his worst spell in recent history, when the United States failed to qualify for the previous 2018 World Cup in Russia. .

Altidore and his former Toronto FC teammate Michael Bradley became the face of this debacle as the most consistent players to appear in the 2018 cycle. But looking back, it’s a heavy burden to bear when you look at the others who surrounded them, the least talented American team for at least two decades.

After Altidore and Bradley, the second most used player was Christian Pulisic. He was clearly the most talented player on the program, but he was still only 19 at the time of that infamous night at Couva. After that? Striker Bobby Wood, who is still in his twenties, has averaged just 0.28 goals per 90 minutes in MLS since joining Real Salt Lake last season. After that? Omar Gonzalez, who at 34 – while many centre-backs still excel – is now primarily a depth feature with the New England Revolution. Landon Donovan had long been estranged from the program by then, and while Clint Dempsey was still involved, he was well past his prime at 35.

And like Bradley, Altidore had some gruesome moments in an American shirt that are all too easily forgotten. It was Altidore who opened the scoring in one of the biggest upsets in program history, a 2-0 win over Spain in the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup. A few months later he scored a sneakily important winner at home to El Salvador to ease tension in the US bid for 2010 qualifying in South Africa.

And when the Americans arrived, it was Altidore who made the perfectly weighted run and sent the perfect cross leading to Dempsey’s initial shot, which spawned the rebound that became Donovan’s famous game-winning goal against Algeria.

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil was fortunate to be Altidore’s defining moment. Instead, the muscle injuries that hampered much of the back half of Altidore’s career ended his tournament after 22 minutes against Ghana. Then came the 2018 cycle, where the problems – if we’re being honest – were bigger than Altidore, Bradley or Bruce Arena could solve.

But that’s something else about this band of 2022. If Altidore could find regular time and steady production in Puebla, and get into the roster, he wouldn’t need to do so much to be considered effective. as he would have done in this 2018 squad. The core of Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson are a few classes above the players providing services in the attacking half of these teams. And Berhalter’s other forward contenders – Jesus Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi and Jordan Pefok – lack Altidore’s combination of physicality and skill when he was at his best.

Even if he is not a candidate to start, a version of Altidor that can be close to this player again for 15 to 30 minutes would be a very useful tool for Berhalter in a tournament where it is very likely that at a point in time his team will be looking for a late goal.

None of this is to say that Altidore is likely to join the factory in Qatar. The truth is, he’s played over 1,000 minutes and scored double-figure goals just once at club level in the last five seasons. It’s the same reason he’s not considered in the same breath as other greats — because that unavailability has slowed his pursuit of Donovan and Dempsey in the US all-time rankings.

And while Puebla might offer more playing opportunities than the Revolution right now, there weren’t many signs he was anywhere near a breakthrough when he was on the pitch for the Revs.

But maybe with the right setup and the right opportunity, one could be unlocked just in time to earn a September call-up and then a savvy pick from Berhalter to take the veteran. If Altidore can defy the odds and find a way to make the choice difficult, American fans should support it.