By Paul Kennedy
The skies were gray all day on Tuesday at StubHub Center, but for Jozy Altidore
they seemed like sunny California.
Less than a week earlier, he was still at Sunderland, languishing on the Black Cats' bench for the
second season in a row. He'd been rescued in part because of the recommendation of his longtime teammate on the U.S. national team, Michael Bradley
. And a
couple of days after arriving in Canada to join Toronto FC, he was whisked off to join Bradley at the national team's January camp.
What's different about California from England? "It's
not dark all the time," he said.
Sunderland marked the darkest period in six-plus years in Europe that featured more failures (one goal in each of his stints at Villarreal, Hull City and
Bursaspor) than successes (39 league goals in two seasons at AZ in the Netherlands).
"I think it was tough for everyone at Sunderland," he told reporters after practice at the Champions
Lounge in the basement of StubHub Center. "If you go down the line, I don't think anybody has it easy there. It's a tough place to play. There's no other way to put it. But I still was appreciative of
it. The fans were fantastic, the stadium was great, and I thank everybody there for when I was there and how they treated me."
Italian Paolo Di
signed Altidore from AZ for the 2013-14 season, but Di Canio didn't last until the end of September. Altidore was coming off a hot summer with the national team, scoring winning goals in
key World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Honduras and a hat trick against Bosnia-Herzegovina, but he never found his stride with the Black Cats, scoring just one goal in 39 English Premier League
matches and three goals in 52 matches in all competitions.
"It didn't go as anybody planned," he said of Di Canio's quick exit and replacement by Gus
, the current Sunderland manager. "There were ideas, a way to play, and after a month, it got thrown out the window. I don't think it was how anybody wanted it to go."
Altidore didn't even dress for Sunderland in the 2014 League Cup final against Manchester City and was at one point dropped to Sunderland's U-21s.
“It was tough," he said, "because
everywhere I go I feel like people are always critical of me, and that’s just the situation I’ve been in since I was 16. But I think over there, I think the toughest thing is mentally how
to stay in it because everybody is so negative all the time about everything. You know the English media. They’re not happy about anything. They can win 5-0, and they’re still not happy.
So I think the ability to kind of deal with all that and look at the bigger picture of where I want to go as a person and knowing this isn’t the end all be all. It’s not, no matter what
people tell you. I just felt like I had to make sure that mentally I stayed in it and stayed sharp.”
For now, Altidore is in familiar territory with Bradley, Clint Dempsey
, Jermaine Jones
and Matt Besler,
all starters at the World Cup.
"You've got the Gold Cup [in 2015], Copa America [in 2016], the Confederations Cup [in 2017] and then the  World Cup," he said. "It's the best time to be a national team player. It's the
best time right now in our league. I felt like this was a good time to take the jump."
Even at last summer's World Cup in Brazil, Altidore said he and Bradley would joke about playing
together in Toronto. In October, things got serious.
“I think [Jermain] Defoe
obviously was unhappy," said Altidore of the England striker
who went to Sunderland in the deal that brought him back to MLS. "And then I had got a text from Michael, ‘Would you ever be interested in coming to MLS?’ That’s when I kind of
started thinking about it."
Altidore and Bradley had played together in Toronto in 2007 when the USA reached the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup, so he knows the city.
“The thing about it was I think Toronto is just unique, being the fact that organization has not had a lot of success," he said. "I mean, I’m not happy about that. But the opportunity
there I thought was a big challenge: to play now with Michael, kind of share that load, and to have a guy like [Italian Sebastian] Giovinco
you’ve got a good nucleus there, and I thought that was a pretty cool challenge to kind of help flip a franchise that has an incredible amount of support, an incredible amount of backing from
the corporate side and I thought that was an incredible challenge. Something different.”