He's been criticized, anonymously of course, this season for a poor work habit, lazy training efforts, poor attitude, questionable wardrobe choices, inability to carry the ponderous Red Bull Global Conglomerate on his shoulders, and just about everything else. Strangely, none of the critics who reputedly attend team training sessions have mentioned anything about observing this directly, but were able to find sources, anonymous of course, to "verify" it.
Well, not to make excuses, but he's certainly had to work in tougher circumstances this season, with a new head coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, and mostly without a most effective partner, Juan Pablo Angel. Also, teams know he can't be "bodied up" successfully by most challengers, since he'll run right through or over his marker in many of those confrontations.
By maintaining a yard or slightly less of separation, getting a second or third teammate into the fray as early as possible, and by doggedly hanging in there, defenders can force Altidore away from his strengths of size, power and speed. He's not the most evasive dribbler, nor the trickiest first-toucher, nor the cleverest juggler. Without oft injured Angel and a steady supply of midfield support, the flashes of combination play he showed last season have seldom emerged.
Has mindset also been a factor? Certainly. But has this been a case of him going out to training sessions or on match days thinking, "I'm better than this," or "Why do I bother?" or something more subtle. There's no way he could have completely erased from his psyche the belief, not the whim or the notion or the dream, but the absolute, stone-cold surety, that sooner or later and probably sooner, "I'm outta here." Show me another incredibly talented teenager, in any discipline or profession, whose focus wavers with fame and fortune fluttering just out of reach. His coach, too, and his teammates, and the entire organization, knew of his inevitable departure.
One of the tired old truisms about professional sports that actually is true is the one about total physical commitment requires absolute mental devotion. Every player who made it to the top can cite examples of someone more talented or gifted or blessed that didn't get there. Some were derailed by injuries or bad luck, but more often they lacked the desire, the drive, the "fire in your belly," as one former international described it. If there's one common thread to the Americans who have succeeded overseas, it's a fierce will to conquer everything that might block the path.
Chuck Clegg, formerly the men's and women's coach at my alma mater, San Diego State, told me long before most American fans knew his name that Kasey Keller was "going to be big-time." Along with can't-miss, "big-time" is relative, but no one can doubt KK has been the latter, whether or not he was ever the former. He's blessed with size and agility and reflexes and courage and intellect, but his teammates will first tell you of his zealous concentration and unquenchable work habits.
The late Clive Charles said much the same about defender Steve Cherundolo, another of his former University of Portland players, who's been so important for German club Hannover that he's one of the team captains and popular enough that Columbus coach Sigi Schmid once said, "If he ran for mayor, he'd win." Below the pleasant, low-key demeanor is an utter commitment to work, self-critique, and more work.
Run down the list of the best exports: John Harkes, Brad Friedel, Marcus Hahnemann, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna. They differ in style and talents and positions and personalities, but they're all psychologically steeled to cope with pressure, fluctuating performances, harsh competition, and luck.
Altidore doesn't turn 19 until November. He's certainly young enough, and will soon be flush enough, to succumb to the sirens of lust, greed, and hubris. Villarreal is buying a fearsome physical specimen still busting out with rough spots and imperfections that will require time and patience and resolute attention to smooth and refine. Perhaps his troubles can be chalked up to distraction, not disdain.
If his head does get as fat as his lifestyle, fighting for a scrap of playing time with a half-dozen hungry, young zealots should sharpen his focus. And there won't be any shortage of witnesses to document every development.