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Jozy Altidore knows World Cup hopes are dwindling but looks to convince with his play in Liga MX

The Athletic

Jozy Altidore is at his home in Puebla, roughly two hours from Mexico City. His wife, tennis star Sloane Stephens, and Altidore’s young son, had recently flown back to Boston after a quick visit. “It’s just me now,” Altidore says. 

Altidore’s in Mexico, on his own, after leaving the comforts of Major League Soccer in July. He was Puebla’s star summer signing, on loan from the New England Revolution until the end of the season. His arrival in Liga MX caught many in North America by surprise, but the move was celebrated in Mexico. 

The 32-year-old American is one of CONCACAF’s most recognizable strikers. Altidore has scored 42 goals for the U.S. and has earned 115 caps, including appearances at World Cups in 2010 and 2014. In a reserve role for Puebla, he has scored two goals in six games so far. 

When Altidore’s trophy-laden spell with Toronto FC came to an unceremonious end this past winter, a move to New England and a reunion with his former international manager, Bruce Arena, didn’t work out as he had hoped. 

Altidore was signed to compete for the No. 9 role, knowing that Polish striker Adam Puksa already had the position locked down. But even after Puksa was transferred to Ligue 1 side Lens in June, Gustavo Bou was Arena’s preferred choice at center forward. A lack of minutes and little output (one goal in 17 appearances), coupled with a New England project that has since crumbled (the Revs are currently outside the playoff picture after winning the Eastern Conference last year), led Altidore to Mexico. 

“I think there were a lot of challenges there that made the experience a lot different than what I intended it to be,” Altidore says.

The end to his time in Toronto was controversial and laced with internal disagreements. Altidore was separated from first-team activities in May of 2021 by then head coach Chris Armas and general manager Ali Curtis. According to reports, the decision was made following an on-field dispute with Armas. But during an appearance on The Crack Podcast in January, which is hosted by Mabricio Wilson and former USMNT internationals DaMarcus Beasley and Oguchi Onyewu, Altidore revealed part of what led to him falling out with Armas. 

“I said something to (Armas) maybe that I should’ve said in a different way,” Altidore said on the podcast. “But what I said was right. I’ll always look out for the team first and I said something to him that I thought was important to the team.” 

Altidore now says that his remarks to Armas stemmed from “certain individuals who were treating young players in the wrong way.” Altidore understood that confronting said individuals would carry its own repercussions. 

“I’m not going to watch those things, especially when these kids try and give their everything,” he adds. “They come with the right attitude. They may not always do the right thing. They may not always make the right pass or tackle, but the intention, the right intent is there. And so I just recognized that.

“I had to say something. At the end of the day I don’t regret it,” he says. “We did so many special things together, but there comes a point in this game and in anything in life, when you’re young you kind of have to just eat it. But sometimes when you see something that’s not right for the young players and it’s not fair, you’re at that point when you have to do it. And if you don’t do it, what example do you set for them? I understand that you have to pay your dues, but wrong is wrong.” 

Altidore doesn’t elaborate when asked whether said individuals were part of Armas’ staff or first-team players. 

“I don’t want to mess with anyone like that,” he says. “I love Toronto. It’s my heart of a club. S— happens, that’s all you can say. And I’ll just leave it there.” 

From the outside, Altidore appeared to have become a problem inside the locker room. He denies this, saying instead that throughout his career, he has never had any issues with his teammates. Altidore acknowledges, however, that perhaps he’s misunderstood. That there’s a version of himself that the public sees and forms an opinion about, and then there’s the friend, teammate and leader that he truly is. 

“You can read about things, different types of things, but I’ve never done something where my teammates would say ‘that’s wrong,’” says Altidore. “Anything I’ve ever done I’ve had the backing of my teammates. That’s what helps me sleep at night.”

His career longevity is a badge of honor to him. Altidore says that he emulates Beasley, his former USMNT teammate, who played nearly 100 matches for Puebla from 2011-2014. 

“At the end of the day the numbers don’t lie in my opinion,” he says. “You can’t be a professional at this level for 17 going on 18 years if you’re not a top pro, if you don’t take your job seriously and just come in everyday ready to work. I don’t care about what anybody says. And it’s funny, all the people that talk, they’ve played 10 years, 11 years. So I let it be, man.”

Now in the latter half of his career, Altidore explains his loan to Puebla as his last chance to experience football abroad. Cruz Azul, fresh off their first Liga MX title in 24 years, had previously inquired about Altidore in 2021, when he was still with Toronto. 

According to reporting by The Athletic, Cruz Azul was willing to cover a portion of Altidore’s salary through 2022. Toronto rejected the proposal. Argentine Primera División side San Lorenzo also made a run for Altidore prior to his loan move to Puebla. He was excited about the possibility of playing in Argentina, but Altidore says that the economic hardships in the country “made it almost impossible.” 

“It’s just a really tough situation right now for football in Argentina,” he says. “There were a lot of things there… I don’t want to embarrass anybody, but if you can’t do the bare minimum on certain things then it’s not possible. I wish we could’ve made it work.”

Altidore says that playing more minutes wasn’t his priority when he asked to leave New England. It was the allure of Liga MX, of Mexico’s footballing culture that persuaded Altidore. Arena supported the decision. 

“He said ‘If you want to go, then go,’” recalls Altidore. “It was good on him, too, to let me go. I’m 32 and I don’t know if I’ll get a chance again. I almost can’t believe that there’s a league this passionate, this heavily followed with very good players from very good national teams so close to the U.S. Usually I thought that you had to go to Europe to find this type of quality. … With the growing relationship between Liga MX and MLS, I wanted to see it up close and learn.”

Altidore admits that the transition has been difficult at times. The language hasn’t been an issue. Altidore speaks fluent Spanish. But the altitude in Puebla has been especially challenging for him. The club’s high-energy style of play was also a big adjustment. Still, the six-month move was a calculated one. He was in search of a better sporting situation, and he’s hoping to remain in contention for a U.S. national team recall ahead of the World Cup in Qatar. His last appearance for the U.S. came in 2019. 

Furthermore, Altidore has become keenly aware of what Liga MX is doing better than MLS, and vice versa. He compares the approach to training and the general culture of football in Mexico to what he had previously experienced in Europe, during stints in Spain, England, Turkey and the Netherlands. 

He has been “pleasantly surprised” by what Liga MX can offer a player in his position. Altidore is attracted to environments where the stakes are higher and where the margin for error is close to nil. He says he’s found that at Puebla under the club’s 38-year-old Argentine manager Nicolás Larcamón, one of the league’s most highly rated coaches. 

On the day of this interview, Altidore had trained in the morning following Puebla’s 2-2 draw the night before, in which Puebla relinquished a 2-0 lead to Pachuca at the Estadio Cuauhtémoc, Puebla’s home ground. Like most of Puebla’s matches, it was an end-to-end contest against one of Liga MX’s most direct and intense sides. The next day was like any other. Back to work with another thoroughly planned and physically challenging training session. 

“There are no days off here,” he says. “One thing that I can say clearly, at least what I’ve seen at Puebla, your every day training environment and concentration and professionalism is way different in Liga MX than it is in MLS. In terms of every guy on the roster coming ready to train, what it means to be a professional player in Liga MX, what it means to the public. Just your lifestyle as a professional footballer as opposed to in the MLS, where it’s still a bit of an unknown, so you get away with a lot more.”

Where MLS does have an edge over Liga MX, says Altidore, is in the increased financial investment from some owners, and the number of high-end training facilities that MLS players enjoy. 

“The money that’s being put in MLS can’t be overlooked,” he says. “It’s helping to level the playing field and helping to level it fast. The fact that almost every team in MLS has a training ground. They have everything you need there for a player. I think that’s overlooked.”

The style of football in Mexico is different than in the U.S., and that has always appealed to Altidore. Tune into most Liga MX match days and you’ll notice that the pace of play is faster and the games are more open than in MLS. 

“Here they rely more on, well, obviously there’s tenacity and there’s the physical part, but it’s obviously a lot more technical. It’s a little bit more tactical in MLS,” Altidore sa

📹#NoTeLoPierdas
¡¡¡G⚽⚽⚽L!!! Jozy Altidore anotó su primer tanto en #LigaBBVAMX

Xolos 3-2 Puebla#CreandoOportunidades ⚽ pic.twitter.com/x1m9VbMLIu

— Liga BBVA MX (@LigaBBVAMX) August 13, 2022

That change has benefitted him at this stage of his career, Altidore says. He has always been a sturdy No. 9 with excellent hold-up play. That skill set is valued by Larcamón, who approved the signing of Altidore after Venezuelan striker Fernando Aristeguieta fractured his leg and was lost for the season. 

“I’ve felt good,” Altidore says. “This type of training is closer to what you get in Europe and even what we had in Toronto all those years. It’s closer to that. Extremely tense every day, very demanding, but you grow in those aspects. You get sharper. You get better. That’s what I’ve enjoyed and that’s why it’s a bit bittersweet because of the short time, but you never say never in the future. It’s been really nice.”

It was always going to be difficult for Altidore to make an immediate impact for Larcamón’s side, which is what the manager told Altidore upon his arrival. Altidore recalls Larcamón’s transparent assessment of his expectations with Puebla.

“‘You don’t know anybody. You don’t know how I play. This is going to be a difficult transition for you,’” Altidore remembers. “I said no problem. I’ve always wanted to come to Liga MX. I think he loved that, too — that I was up for the challenge. We have a good flow of communication. I wish I had the opportunity a little bit earlier but, hey, this is how life works.”

📹#NoTeLoPierdas
¡¡¡G⚽⚽⚽L de Jozy Altidore!!! Segundo gol del delantero estadounidense en el Torneo. Se empató el partido.

Querétaro 1-1 Puebla#LigaBBVAMX | #Apertura2022 pic.twitter.com/PkGFR0Q5B8

— Liga BBVA MX (@LigaBBVAMX) September 2, 2022

The technical side of the game is emphasized in Mexico, which has been a welcome change for Altidore. Puebla’s center forwards have to be active participants defensively and in the attack. Because so many teams in Mexico play with a high defensive line, Puebla’s No. 9s are expected to be a viable outlet and play quickly when the midfielders press and recover possession in midfield.

“It’s been nice to rely a little less on the athletic side and more on your brain and trying to get into good positions and taking good touches, creating space and scoring goals,” he says. “In MLS it’s a bit more physically demanding than Liga MX, but I think in Liga MX, you stand out right away when you don’t have the right technique when the ball comes to your feet.” 

“To see the important shifts from clean touches and getting the ball at your feet, to then being able to just run and challenge and do those things, that’s been fun and I’ve really enjoyed it,” Altidore adds.  

Altidore has already gone viral in Mexico, and not because of his play. As he stood on the sidelines with other Puebla substitutes during a recent match, television cameras captured his disapproval of a coconut-flavored sports drink he was sampling. Altidore explains that he had just taken the hydration tablets the team gives players during warm-ups and at half time. 

“I was just trying to wash it down,” he says. Until that moment, Altidore said that he had tried every electrolyte flavor in Mexico other than coconut. “Es coco” his teammates told him, as he pondered whether to try it or not. Altidore took a sip and became an instant meme. 

Electrolit de coco no mames weyy 😂🤣 https://t.co/lEXstBTMJ1

— Jozy Altidore (@JozyAltidore) September 2, 2022

“I tried it and said, ‘God this is awful,’” he says with a laugh. “The camera caught me. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I didn’t know people would react the way they did. It was pretty funny. And that’s another thing — the cameras are part of the culture here. You never know. It’s crazy.”

After the video took off on social media, Altidore responded in the best way possible. “Electrolit de coco no mames weyy,” he wrote on Twitter. Reminded of his usage of Mexican slang, Altidore repeats ‘No mames wey!’ in jest. 

There’s heightened media attention in Mexico, but Altidore is at the point in his career when the flashbulbs aren’t as bright. The current focus in the U.S. is on a new generation of American players, a promising group that will be the youngest team at the upcoming World Cup in Qatar. Altidore has not featured for U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter in three years, but he hasn’t closed the door on a return to the national team. 

If his secondary goal is to make a late World Cup push for a contributing role under Berhalter, he’s gaining the sharpness that’s needed to change or even influence a game as a substitute, when opportunities are limited. Altidore realizes, though, that time is not on his side. 

“There’s a lot of very, very good talent coming up, so you have to be able to live with those things,” says Altidore. “It’s part of getting older in your career. It’s life.”

During his first press availability with Puebla in August, Altidore was asked if he hoped to make the USMNT World Cup roster in November. He gave a standard answer. Every player wants to play in a World Cup, he said, before admitting that he’s far from that possibility and that his immediate objective was to compete and adapt to Liga MX. 

Altidore was not included in Berhalter’s latest squad for the upcoming friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia. FC Dallas’ Jesús Ferreira, Ricardo Pepi, currently on loan with Dutch side Groningen, and Norwich City striker Josh Sargent will feature for the U.S. later this month. The three have a combined total of 43 international caps and 15 goals for the national team. It’s a group with limited international experience, but it’s highly unlikely that Berhalter will take four strikers to Qatar.

“If I’m being realistic, it’s difficult to get there if you haven’t been there for a few years,”Altidore says. “But if the coach asks me, of course I would go. Of course, why not? It’s the greatest honor you can have. I would definitely love it if the team needed me. I would be there and I would give everything. Ten minutes to get a chance to score, I definitely think I can do that, but at the end of the day, like I said, I think I’m far from that just because I haven’t been involved.”  

“Jozy Altidore is a very respected figure within Mexican football right now.” @herculezg on the American striker’s reputation at @ClubPueblaMX and within Liga MX.

Is the door open for a #USMNT recall?

Watch: https://t.co/N2iOs8DclN
Listen: https://t.co/O7i69moZgF pic.twitter.com/vyzdJCR3XS

— Felipe Cárdenas (@FelipeCar) September 20, 2022

Altidore has had many highs as a professional, but when he reminisces about his past, the one thing he’d like to change about his career is clear as day. He remembers being too young and inexperienced to object when something didn’t feel right to him. 

“I think when I was younger I did things because the people around me wanted me to do them. If I could go back and change something it would’ve been that. To do what I felt. To go with my gut in certain situations. When you feel like something’s not right and you don’t address it, that’s probably the worst feeling.”

When asked to provide an example, Altidore pauses and says that there’s always another side to a story. 

“My agents and what they wanted for me,” he says. “You have to be careful. A lot of these agents just want to make money, and at the end of the day that’s all that matters. I think that’s another thing that’s tough for young kids to navigate because it’ll look like they want the best for you, but they just want the commission. We have to make sure that we educate our young players on those types of things too, so that guys aren’t moving around and getting lost.” 

Altidore scored 39 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar and lifted the KNVB Cup as an Eredivisie star from 2011 to 2013. But his biggest successes wouldn’t come until he left Europe for Toronto FC in 2015. Altidore was the MLS Cup MVP when Toronto won the league title and the Supporters’ Shield in 2017. He also won three Canadian Championships. Toronto missed winning a treble after a runner-up finish to Chivas de Guadalajara in the CONCACAF Champions League final. 

Altidore’s partnership with Italian midfielder Sebastian Giovinco resulted in 31 goals between the two of them in 2017. Toronto, then led by current LA Galaxy head coach Greg Vanney, featured a mix of young players, experienced internationals and a collective desire to make Toronto a legitimate power in North America. 

“We were so happy to be in Toronto at the time,” Altidore says. “Everybody was so obsessed with the challenge, regardless of what we had done in our careers. Everybody was obsessed with making Toronto a winner and that’s maybe not the case everywhere. Toronto at that time was a very unique project, which is what made the appetite to win so great. We were a team that was being laughed at, but we had by far one of the best (football) cultures in the league.” 

Altidore hesitates briefly when asked if that Toronto team was the best side in MLS history. He acknowledges that the league has changed since 2017, as ambition and spending continue to grow. But it didn’t take long for Altidore to convince himself of the answer. 

“MLS history? I think that team, that year, yeah,” he says confidently. “We had everything.” 

Altidore says that contractually, he’ll be reporting back to New England come January, but the possibility that he’ll extend his stay in Liga MX certainly exists. He says that he’s accomplished about all that he can in MLS and that he wants to continue to play at the highest level possible. Puebla is in position to qualify for the Liguilla and extend their season, which is crucial to Altidore’s chances to impress Berhalter before November. 

“I’m hungry,” he says. “I’m excited for another season coming up and finishing this one strong and then just keep going. I still have the appetite to play. I still enjoy it a lot.” 

But Altidore is also thinking longer term. He’s actively studying the market in Mexico. American investment in Liga MX has increased over the last year. Club Necaxa, reportedly valued at $200 million, is now partially owned by a group of American investors, led by Al Tylis, part owner of D.C. United and Swansea City, and Sam Porter, chief strategy officer for D.C. United. German footballer Mesut Ozil, Major League Baseball pitcher Justin Verlander, model Kate Upton, and actress Eva Longoria have all invested in Necaxa. 

“The marketing, the presentation of the league, transfers, the ins and outs of valuations of the teams. The stadium ownerships, I’ve learned a lot about that,” Altidore says. “A lot of these teams don’t own their own stadiums. It’s interesting just sitting back and looking at the differences and similarities to MLS. It’s no secret that I have aspirations one day to be heavily involved in the game, whether it be in acquisitions, or that type of thing.” 

When asked if becoming an owner or part owner was in his future plans, Altidore responds enthusiastically. 

“One hundred percent,” he says, adding that investing in MLS “would be amazing as an American player,” and that ownership is “not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’”

“I think one of the biggest ways to affect development and how you want to see the game is having a seat at the table,” says Altidore. “I definitely want to be involved, whether it be with an expansion team, an existing team. That’s where I have my heart set — in ownership. That’s my goal and a lot of the things that I’m doing now are to help me prepare for that, on and off the field.”

(Photo: Agustin Cuevas/Getty Images)

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