One year ago, Jozy Altidore was occupying the stratosphere of U.S. soccer. He had recently completed a reported $13 million move from AZ Alkmaar to English Premier League side Sunderland, a record fee for a U.S. player. He had also enjoyed a spectacular summer with the U.S. men's national team, scoring in four straight matches to put the Americans on the cusp of qualifying for the World Cup.
These days, Altidore is the man who fell to earth. His club season with Sunderland was nothing short of brutal, as he scored just two goals in 39 league and cup appearances. He was even left off the Black Cats' 18-man roster for the League Cup final against Manchester City. Worse, his dreams of World Cup glory were shot down just 23 minutes into the Americans' opener against Ghana, when he suffered a torn hamstring that ended up sidelining him for the remainder of the tournament.
As Altidore recalled the past year in an exclusive interview, he offered a blunt assessment of all that transpired.
"It was one of the worst years of my life," he said via telephone." Just mentally and physically, for me to get through it was very difficult. And getting injured at the World Cup was the lowest point in my career. I never felt so low, just sitting in the locker room after having that injury."
Now Altidore is in the process of trying to rebuild his game -- as well as his hamstring -- with Sunderland. He indicated that he's doing "basically everything" in training, and hopes to take part in this weekend's friendly against Udinese.
As for his psyche, Altidore insisted that work has already been done. He admitted he was affected last season by some off-field issues, although he declined to delve into details.
"I had some personal problems that I didn't see coming," he said. "I just wasn't right. I think that translated into games and training sessions. I'm just ready to start fresh this season."
Without question, this year amounts to a make-or-break campaign in terms of Altidore's future in the Premier League. While much has been made of his struggles in front of goal, Altidore's playing time will likely be linked to his ability to do the little things well. If he holds the ball up, defends from the front and can win balls in the attacking half, then chances are Altidore will get his share of playing time, even if that means coming off the bench. If he scores, so much the better.
"When you're a team that's fighting to be mid-table, there's an expectation of work rate that Jozy has to buy into," said ESPN television analyst and former EPL goalkeeper Kasey Keller. "Towards the end of the season, I think it was moving in the right direction. He went from not even being in the squad at the League Cup final to coming on as a sub at the end of the year. There was obviously something there that got him more playing time."
The fact that Altidore finds himself at the same club for the second season running certainly counts as a plus. When he was with AZ, an inconsistent first year gave way to a stellar second season, and at the time Altidore remarked how familiarity with this club, manager and city all helped him find his best form. The same is true heading into this campaign, which according to Fox Soccer analyst Brian McBride should benefit the U.S. international.
"There's always changes in the summer," he said. "The little changes are a lot easier to deal with than the giant ones of moving clubs, getting settled in a house, just getting settled into a routine. If you have that, then add in the fact you know what direction the manager wants to go ... I'm sure they've talked to Jozy and shared their ideas for him. The clarity part of it is huge."
That explains how Altidore has resisted, at least for the moment, the siren call of MLS that has seen U.S. teammates Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey return to North America.
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"I told my agent that I was trying to play at Sunderland first and everything else was kind of secondary," said Altidore. "I never really allowed it to cloud my thinking. I was never taking [MLS] as a move I wanted to do right now."
Altidore figures to benefit from some improvements to the roster as well. After last year's spending spree under Paolo Di Canio, manager Gus Poyet has been more circumspect in terms of his acquisitions, with Jack Rodwell joining from Manchester City and Jordi Gomez arriving from Wigan. Such additions should allow Sunderland to have more of the ball than last season, when Altidore received little support, although the end of the campaign saw the Black Cats begin to adopt Poyet's preferred style.
"[Poyet] wants us to play good football," said Altidore. "That has to be the starting point; we have to be able to pass, move the ball. If we do that, you see how everybody goes about the game and starts to take more risk. That for me was a big piece. At the end of the season I was able to fit better into the team."
Of course, Altidore's injury at the World Cup means he will start the campaign behind the likes of Steven Fletcher and last season's goal-scoring hero, Connor Wickham. Reports also have Sunderland poised to land Fabio Borini from Liverpool. Such a crowd could see Altidore move on, although Keller thinks that's unlikely given the amount of money Sunderland has already invested.
"Whenever there's the type of financial commitment that a club has for a player, they're going to give him every benefit of the doubt, because they know they can't recoup the money that they paid for him if the player isn't successful," he said. "I fully expect that Altidore will get several opportunities to prove himself. But you have to take those chances."
Only then will Altidore be able to put a difficult year behind him.