After years of on-again, off-again hamstring injuries keeping Jozy Altidore out of important tournaments for the U.S. national team, the striker has had enough. Coming off an eight-week layoff that forced him to miss the Copa America Centenario, Altidore thinks he figured out the problem.
"In a sense, it was kind of treated wrong," said Altidore, who was set to return to full Toronto FC training on Wednesday for the first time since his latest injury. "We went to a couple of specialists and hopefully we've fixed the problem. Obviously with hamstrings, once you have [problems] once or twice they can reoccur, but we hope that since we've corrected it, we can be better going forward now."
If he's right, that could shake up the dynamic of both the U.S. national team and at Toronto FC -- but has Altidore's latest extended absence been too much? Has he gone from an automatic starter to a question mark for club and country?
Most U.S. supporters will be hoping Altidore's hamstring issues are over. Despite Altidore's ill-timed injuries that have repeatedly left the USMNT scrambling when he was needed the most, the U.S. still doesn't have very many striker options behind the Toronto FC striker.
Not only did Altidore miss last month's Copa America, but he was also injured during the 2014 World Cup and the Gold Cups in 2011 and 2015. Increasingly, one of the USMNT's best target striker options was looking too unreliable -- yet every time he returned, he was back in immediate contention for a starting spot.
Before Copa America, Altidore starting might've been automatic, but Bobby Wood's great form during the tournament may have changed that. Wood had arguably his best minutes ever in a U.S. shirt during the tournament and Wood is likely the only player standing in Altidore's way right now for the long haul.
Wood proved he can fill what used to be a roster gap and play an Altidore-esque role for the Americans, doing to grunt work with his back to goal to hold the ball and create opportunities for others to score. In the American talent pool, there are very few natural target men like Altidore, but Wood proved he is one of them.
The more immediate impact of Altidore's impending return, however, is on Toronto FC. While Altidore's role as primary goalscorer changed with the arrival of 2015 MLS Golden Boot-winner Sebastian Giovinco, he still has played a key role in holding the ball up to relieve pressure and finding seams to distribute the ball. Last season, his connection with Giovinco was evident with the pair scoring 35 goals between them. If they can get going again this year, Toronto FC could make the most of the postseason.
But his impact this year has been minimal due to injury. Altidore has missed half of the Major League Soccer season, tallying two assists in eight games played, two of them starts. Altidore missed Toronto's first two matches of the season due to yet another bout of hamstring problems.
In that extended absence, Toronto FC has needed to find a replacement, and they have in 20-year-old Jordan Hamilton, who has managed to make the most of his opportunity. In eight games, he has scored four times. It's a small sample size, but the rookie has managed to be more productive than Altidore this year.
There's no doubt that Altidore is the better striker and once he is game-fit, he will be starting for Toronto FC once again. The team has been struggling lately and needs Altidore to find his connection with Giovinco again. But it's not as quick as saying it's an automatic decision -- it's one at least worth questioning.
And that is what makes Altidore's return to the USMNT interesting. There's a fair question to ask about whether the U.S. should continue to depend on a player whose injuries have made him unreliable. But the U.S. just doesn't have enough depth, and it may come down to a battle between Altidore vs. Wood.
The best-case scenario for everyone is that Altidore is right about his injury and he'll have a handle on his hamstring issues going forward. Altidore, who has continually fought back hard after every injury, deserves it and the U.S., which has few other target options, needs it.
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