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When Jozy comes home: USMNT striker Altidore is happy to be home in MLS, ready for big 2015

02/06/2015 06:29 EST | Updated 04/08/2015 05:59 EDT
CARSON, Calif. - Instead of sitting on the Sunderland bench during the English winter, Jozy Altidore is soaking up sun and getting into form with the U.S. national team in Southern California.

"It's not dark every day, which is nice," he said with a laugh.

Altidore was eager for a fresh start when he joined MLS's Toronto FC last month, and he believes this U.S. training camp is only the beginning of a revitalizing year for a striker who hasn't been terribly striking lately.

"It's the best time to be a national team player, and it's the best time right now in our league," Altidore said. "I felt like this was a good time to take the jump."

The U.S. men play their second exhibition of the year on Sunday against Panama at StubHub Center, the suburban Los Angeles home of the MLS champion LA Galaxy.

Altidore hasn't lived full-time in North America since he was a teenager, and he seems overjoyed to be home. Born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, he left the New York Red Bulls in 2008 for a tour of six European clubs over seven years, excelling with AZ Alkmaar and struggling everywhere else.

Last year was particularly painful: Along with his well-documented struggles at Sunderland, the World Cup was a disaster for Altidore, who was carried off the field in the Americans' opening game in Brazil after injuring his hamstring.

"It's good to get back to playing, because I haven't played in a while," he said.

Altidore accomplished little in his 18 months at Sunderland, managing just three goals in his entire tenure while struggling with little quality service in the Black Cats' counterattacking style. His scoring drought was just one manifestation of a rough stretch for the club, and he left with frustration.

"I think Sunderland fans would be the first to tell you it's just not been good enough," Altidore said. "It's not like ... I was the cause of all the terrible things that happened. I just don't think we fit. I don't think I fit Sunderland, and they certainly didn't fit me. Sometimes that happens. I tried to play in different ways, but it didn't fit. I'm a certain player, and they play a certain way. Sometimes it just doesn't work out."

When he decided to move late last year, Altidore attracted interest from Lille and Stuttgart, among other continental destinations.

But he had been thinking seriously about MLS since the World Cup, when U.S. teammate Michael Bradley took a break from stretching to suggest Altidore should join him in Toronto. Despite enthusiastic fan support in a major market, the Reds have never made the MLS playoffs or finished higher than 11th on the overall table in their eight seasons of existence.

"Toronto is just unique," Altidore said. "You've got a good nucleus there, and I thought that was a really cool challenge, to kind of help try to flip a franchise that has incredible support, incredible amount of backing from the corporate side."

Altidore is returning to a league that has grown in every way since his departure seven years ago. He was blown away by Toronto's training grounds, recalling the Red Bulls' lack of even a gym when he played in New York.

"I wanted to go to a place where the team still mattered," Altidore said. "I'm looking forward to whatever challenges we face ... and I'm excited to live in this part of the world."

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