[U.S. SPOTLIGHT] The U.S. striker, who just turned 22, has scored eight goals in all competitions for his new club, AZ Alkamaar. To assess how well Jozy Altidore is doing for the Dutch team, for which he debuted three months ago, just do the math.
In 12 Eredivisie matches, he’s already scored more goals (four) than he did in a combined 43 games for Villarreal, Hull City, and Bursaspor spread over three European seasons. He scored one goal apiece for each club; not counted is a loan to Xerez, for which he didn’t play at all.
A $10 million prodigy – that’s how much paid Villarreal paid in June, 2008 after he scored 15 goals in 37 appearances for the MetroStars/Red Bulls – at age 18 has only recently found a club, as well as a country and a culture, where he can flourish.
“At Villarreal I was really young and I was really inexperienced, but it was an important time in my life and in my career,” he said via telephone from the USA’s training stint north of Paris, where it plays France on Friday. “I tried to apply what I learned when I came to the national team, and I’m trying to do that now, to prepare myself and have a better attitude. There were times I didn’t have good control of it.”
Altidore is one of many athletes to misuse – as interpreted by the executives of a successful Spanish team stacked with international players from many countries -- the freedom of social media. Disgruntlement over scant playing time with Villarreal prompted him to tweet his unhappiness, which was not a good career move.
A loan move to Second Division Xerez, an ambitious club rolling toward promotion that had no need for a petulant American teenager, didn’t ease his frustration. Subsequent loans to clubs in England and Turkey were a bit more productive but ultimately dead-ended.
At the 2011 Gold Cup last June, he scored a goal against Canada then suffered a strained hamstring in the quarterfinals that further clouded his future. Still, rumors of a move from Villarreal persisted and eventually were confirmed by Altidore via, of course, Twitter (capitalization error intact):
"To all my amazing fans, I have indeed agreed to terms to join AZ In holland! Thanks for all the love and the hate, it's all making me better!"
In the 20 league, Dutch Cup, and Europa League games AZ has played since he joined the team, Altidore has missed only a second-round cup match. In addition to his league total, he’s scored four more goals in six Europa League matches, yet he’ll need some production with the national team to convince a certain segment of American fans and pundits, from whom there’s been little love and a smidge of hate of late.
He’s scored two goals in 11 U.S. appearances this year after netting twice in nine games in 2010, a sheer drop from the eight he bagged in 22 games during 2008 and 2009. He’s been criticized as too slow, too lazy, too clumsy, too limited, etc., all misconceptions that can be blamed on a lack of consistent, competitive club play.
Now, he has plenty of that, in training sessions as well as in matches. “So far, I think I’ve done well for myself,” he says. "It’s a good group and we have a lot of good players, especially strikers, so there’s always competition. We play a standard 4-3-3, pretty traditional with wingers. It’s very comfortable for me, I’m used to the players around me.”
One facet of his play with the national team, particularly under former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, was getting out wide to work the flanks, as he did at the 2010 World Cup to run the ball downfield and hit the cross that turned into the gamewinner against Algeria. They don’t go for that at AZ.
“They definitely want me to stay central more, and it doesn’t really change if we play home or away or how we’re going to play, they want me to stay central,” he says of the scheme taught by Coach Gertjan Verbeek. “And every team is different, so that affects the requirements for me, and so does playing internationally. I enjoy it, I’m learning more and more, and I’m getting better and better.”
One of his international trips took AZ east to play Metalist Kharkiv in a Europa League match. Kharkiv is the second-largest city in Ukraine -- only Kiev has more people than Kharkiv’s population of 1.5 million – and Metalist Stadium will play host to three Euro 2012 matches next summer. With a goal by Altidore, AZ went home from the group match with a 1-1 tie.
“We actually went around the city and saw a lot of it,” he says of the late-September visit. “I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe but that was definitely different, to go to Ukraine.”
He doesn’t regard the three years he spent bouncing between clubs before settling at AZ as wasted time. Those obstacles and setbacks are merely part of the process. At AZ, he likes the city, lists goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado and midfielder Celso Ortiz among his closest teammates, and already has his game plan for a cold winter mapped out.
“I love the city and I love where I live now,” he says. “I’m a homebody anyway, so when it gets cold that won’t be a problem. I’ll be indoors trying to stay as warm as possible.
“I’ve got no problems with the way it’s done in Europe. I’ve gone through the tough parts and at that age it was difficult, and I think I’ve seen that being in that culture has trained me as a person and as a player.
“It’s exactly what I wanted. That was one of my goals, to get games and get back to the top level.”