The United States' reward for surviving the Group of Death is a date with Belgium, one of the trendier picks amongst the soccer hipsters to advance deep into this year's tournament. The Belgians, it can be fairly argued, are the better side on paper.
But the United States could possibly be getting a big boost in time for that game, as Jozy Altidore might—and the "might" can't be stressed enough—be able to return in time for Tuesday's game. Without question, his presence on the pitch would be huge for the United States.
But how likely is he to return? Well, things are still up in the air, according to Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated:
The first sight that greeted the media when we arrived at U.S. training here after a long flight from Recife on Friday was Jozy Altidore jogging around the perimeter of the practice field at Sao Paulo FC. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a big deal, but the fact he was doing it (and without limping) suggested Altidore might be ready after his hamstring strain in the opening World Cup match against Ghana to return in the round of 16 clash against Belgium on Tuesday.
'We are very optimistic,' said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Friday. 'Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now [since the injury], and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.'
Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports wasn't quite so optimistic:
Jozy Altidore did a slow, brief, easy jog at practice. Then headed inside. Difficult to envision him in condition by Tuesday's game.— Dan Wetzel (@DanWetzel) June 28, 2014
And Leander Schaerlaeckens of Fox Sports humorously suggested we don't read too much into the whole thing:
To those asking how fast Jozy was running: It was a healthy trot. Or a swift jog. Or a leisurely sprint. Or a casual dash. I dunno. He ran.— Leandinho (@LeanderOnFOX) June 28, 2014
While Altidore struggled to find his goalscoring touch for much of the past year, his impact on the United States is huge in so many other ways. The game changed pretty quickly against Ghana when Altidore had to leave to an injury, for instance. Without him deep down the middle, serving as an outlet and maintaining possession until his teammates could join the attack, the United States really struggled to hold onto the ball.
His hold-up play and ability to facilitate for his teammates is an underrated aspect of his game.
His movement is also excellent and really opens up spaces for players like Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones to run into. His physicality also takes a toll on opposing centre-backs, who are often worse for the wear after colliding with Altidore.
Plus, Dempsey just isn't a true centre-forward and is far more effective when he has a player like Altidore to pair with. Dempsey is at his best when he's allowed to roam freely and poach goals, as the ball has a magical way of finding him in dangerous areas. But he's far more limited if he's required to play the role of outlet man and hold up play. It simply isn't his strong suit.
Altidore is also a better player in the air than Dempsey, giving players like Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley a bigger target when they race down the flanks. Against Belgium, crosses into the box and set pieces will be a key for the United States; Altidore would give them another weapon in those situations.
And it can't be ignored that Altidore has a ton of international experience and has played in a knockout round game before. He won't be intimidated by the stage.
But will he be available? And if he is available, will he be fit enough to start, or will he be saved as a super sub?
These are big questions. Heck, the answers could be the difference between the United States advancing and going home. There are no two ways about it—a fit Altidore would be a gigantic boost for the Americans against Belgium.