When Sunderland takes on West Bromwich Albion on Wednesday, the Black Cats can secure safety in the English Premier League with a win or a draw. A positive resulte would mean a five-match unbeaten streak that has transformed their season from nightmare to thrilling tale of redemption.
The same can't be said just yet for Jozy Altidore's first season at Sunderland, and the reality is that even if Sunderland does avoid relegation, there will be serious questions heading into the summer about what Altidore's future holds.
By any measure, Altidore's first season at Sunderland has been an utter disappointment. The $13 million signing has managed just one Premier League goal and has been in and out of the lineup throughout the season. He has drawn the wrath of angry Sunderland fans, and has been criticized by current manager Gus Poyet, who has benched Altidore on multiple occasions. He has watched as another forward, young English striker Connor Wickham, has become the star of the team's revival by scoring goals in the position where Altidore struggled.
So there's no way Altidore will be back at the Stadium of Light next season, right?
The answer to that question is a bit compilicated.
It starts with Altidore's hefty price tag, which was one of the largest fees ever paid by Sunderland. While larger clubs like Manchester United and Chelsea might be able to unload an eight-figure transfer investment after just one season, doing so isn't quite as easy for a club like Sunderland, which may not be poor, but isn't exactly at the higher end of the spending scale.
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If Sunderland does, in fact, plan on moving Altidore, it will need to try and recoup some of the transfer free spent on him, and the team's ability to do that could hinge on how Altidore does at the World Cup. If Altidore has a strong showing in Brazil, it could be that much easier to find a buyer willing to spend a large fee.
Then you have Altidore himself, and what exactly he wants to do. He does still have some say in the matter, having signed a lengthy and lucrative contrat when he joined Sunderland. Does he want to leave? Has the team's strong finish, and Poyet's seeming renewed faith in Altidore late in the season made staying more appealing? Would he consider taking a pay cut to go somewhere else, like back to the Netherlands or even to a league like Serie A or the Bundesliga?
One league that might offer him an escape is Major League Soccer, where spending big money on U.S. national team stars is the norm now, and there is clearly interest in Altidore from some MLS clubs, with the Portland Timbers and New York City FC among the clubs linked by recent rumors.
As much as MLS has the resources to make it worth Altidore's while to come back to Major League Soccer, it is difficult to see the 24-year-old Altidore leaving Europe already, especially not on the heels of the worst pro season of his career.
If you think Altidore won't have options this summer, think again. One poor season in the Premier League isn't going to scare away teams that fell in love with the quality he showed during his time with Dutch club AZ. That would be even less the case if Altidore can have a good showing at the World Cup. If he wants to move this summer, and if Sunderland wants to move him, it can definitely happen, even if both sides might have to do some sacrificing to make it happen.
Which brings us back to Sunderland, and manager Gus Poyet, who will probably have the final say. Poyet is a safe bet to return as Sunderland manager next season after pulling the club out of a terrible crisis following the departure of Paolo DiCanio, and he will have to determine if he has seen enough from Altidore to give the striker another season to show his worth and make up for a dismal first campaign.
Sunderland also happens to have a roster set for some serious turnover this summer as several top players are either coming to the end of their contracts, or are returning to their parent clubs after loans. Fabio Borini are Seb Larsson two of five players that started in the win against Manchester United who are currently not under contract to Sunderland next season.
Needing to replenish the squad could lead Poyet to sell Altidore, or forward Steven Fletcher, who still would probably fetch more in the Premier League market than Altidore even though he has had a similiary disappointing season. It is safe to assume one of the two will be gone, particularly given the impressive emergence of Wickham.
Perhaps this final week, and the final two matches of Sunderland's Premier League season will swing the pendulum in a specific direction. If Altidore finishes out the season well, and shows Poyet that he is worth keeping around as part of his roster for next season, then a return isn't that unrealistic.
A strong World Cup wouldn't hurt either.
So no, Altidore's time at Sunderland may not necessarily be coming to an end this weekend, and he still might find a way to end this brutally difficult season on a high note. If he helps Sunderland avoid relegation, he just might get that chance to return next season and show Sunderland and its supporters why the club signed him in the first place.
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- Jozy Altidore
- English Premier League
- Gus Poyet