It was ecstasy, then agony. A mere 32 seconds into Team USA’s World Cup opener against Ghana, Clint Dempsey sent a left-footed strike past goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey. The dazzling display was the fastest goal in U.S. World Cup history (and fifth all-time). But the triumph was short-lived. Twenty minutes later, U.S. striker Jozy Altidore was barreling down the left sideline at top speed in pursuit of the ball. He lowered his head to try and control it but suddenly stopped short, clenching the back of his thigh before collapsing to the ground.
“I was sprinting and I felt something,” Altidore told reporters after the match. “I knew right away I couldn’t continue.”
He was carted off on a stretcher with a left hamstring injury and relegated to the sidelines, cheering his team on for their nail-biting matches against Portugal and Germany. And it seemed like history was cruelly repeating itself. Altidore suffered a similar hamstring injury in the quarterfinals of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup against Jamaica, which left him sidelined for four to six weeks.
The mere sight of Altidore jogging—some would say trotting—during Friday’s practice set off a flurry of excited chatter among devoted football aficionados. One headline even read, “Jozy Altidore is Jogging,” which sounds like a bizarre Tumblr.
On Monday, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when the U.S. Soccer Federation tweeted that Altidore, Team USA’s star forward, was “ready and available” for their Round of 16 match. While it’s unclear what exactly “ready and available” means, Altidore’s return to the pitch could give America a much-needed edge, or at least the chance to go toe-to-toe, in Tuesday afternoon’s elimination bout against Belgium.
The 24-year-old striker, meanwhile, was building a reputation on the international stage before he could even legally drink. Born to Haitian immigrants in Livingston, New Jersey, Altidore made his first professional appearance at the age of 16 for the New York Red Bulls. He had to ask permission from his Major League Soccer coach to skip a game in order to attend his high school prom. Before his 20th birthday in 2009, he became the youngest U.S. player to earn a hat trick in a qualifying game, against Trinidad and Tobago. Following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Altidore paid tribute to the 26 victims of the tragedy by wearing a black band across his arm and scrawling each of their names in black ink on his yellow cleats for a game for his then-Dutch club AZ Alkmaar. And last year, he scored a goal in five consecutive international matches—a Team USA record—clinching the feat with a hat trick in the United States’ 4-3 comeback win over Bosnia and Herzegovina. For his efforts, Altidore was named U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year. Overall, he’s notched 23 goals in 71 international appearances for Team USA, ranking sixth all-time.
It’s nothing short of a miracle that Team USA was able to advance past the “Group of Death” and on to the Round of 16 without Altidore— thanks in no small part to Portugal’s narrow victory over Ghana. With the athletic forward out of the lineup for critical World Cup matches against Portugal and Germany, the responsibility fell on the shoulders of Dempsey, who was suffering from a strained hamstring himself. U.S. Coach Jurgen Klinsmann implemented a 4-5-1 formation, with four defenders, five midfielders, and Dempsey forced into the role of lone striker. And, despite a heroic effort from Dempsey—broken nose and all—the U.S. managed to net just four goals in group play, and its statistics for shots attempted and shots on target are some of the lowest of the World Cup. The U.S. will need more offensive firepower to make a deep run in the tourney.
But with the addition of Altidore, Klinsmann can switch to a more agreeable 4-4-2 formation and put the forward to good use doing the dirty work of “really open[ing] up spaces for players like Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to run into,” writes Bleacher Report. Though Altidore is not the most prolific goal scorer, the heart of his strength lies in his ability to create chances for his teammates on the pitch—motoring and muscling past defenders.
Of course, we’re still not sure how much playing time Altidore will see against Belgium.
“We don’t know how much because we need to see how he’s going, but he’s available,” Klinsmann said Monday. “How many minutes? We will see that during the game.” He added, “Just having him tomorrow is huge.”
Despite the nasty injury, Altidore is no stranger to adversity. The Haitian-American has, on several occasions, been the unfortunate recipient of racist heckling during his professional career in Europe. In January 2013, while playing for AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Cup quarterfinals, fans for the opposing FC Den Bosch taunted him with racist monkey noises. The chants grew so loud that the referee wanted to stop the game. However, Altidore demanded they soldier on. “It's only going to make them stronger if we back down,” he said of his thought process. “I just want to get on with it and play and win the game.”
Along with Altidore’s attacking style and prowess on the pitch, it’s his mental toughness that may really be the key to a U.S. victory on Tuesday.