Commentary

Altidore polarizes the soccer world once again

By Ridge Mahoney
(@ridgemax)

His critics would have you believe that against Denmark Jozy Altidore scored a goal and set up another and did little else. I beg to differ.

Not that he did enough to merit rave reviews. The Danes were rugged and composed defensively aside from the two incisive serving balls that produced the goals, and when Altidore did knock a ball towards a teammate or into a good spot they often got there first. He wasn’t especially good but compared to the lackluster bunch accompanying him, he held up his end.

Now that Landon Donovan (“Landycakes” to his detractors) has retired, Altidore -- along with Michael Bradley -- has taken the mantle of USA scapegoat. If Altidore doesn’t play well and the USA loses, he’s the reason. If he plays well, regardless of result, he didn’t do enough. He will never be a dynamic game-breaker in the mold of Donovan or Clint Dempsey, who missed the game because of a hamstring strain.

He’s also not the equal of Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, who scored all three of his country’s goals in its 3-2 comeback win. Yet the Danes also have Christian Eriksen, who unlike Dempsey, still plays for Spurs. Denmark unleashed several players quick and dangerous on the flanks, an area seldom utilized by the Americans.

Jozy critics cite these perceived shortcomings: slow, lazy, clumsy, predictable. He’s Dozy Jozy to many Sunderland fans after they watched him score just three goals in 52 appearances during an 18-month stay that ended with a move to Toronto FC in January.

Altidore has already matched that total this month. He netted twice in TFC’s opening-day win, a 3-1 victory in Vancouver prior to tallying against the Danes. Three goals in his last six U.S. games hasn’t quieted the critics, and for many of them, probably nothing he does – such as scoring in five straight games in 2013 – will suffice.

That’s the life of a striker, especially one not speedy enough to blow by defenders and tuck away shots from tight angles (Bradley Wright-Phillips), or wily enough to spot and exploit the tiniest opening (Marco di Vaio). Against the Danes, while supposedly paired with Aron Johannsson in a 4-4-2 formation, Altidore labored through a stretch of nearly 34 minutes without receiving a pass in the attacking half, yet it wasn’t for lack of movement nor effort.

He and Johannsson seldom connected, though a check of Altidore’s heat map and passing diagram show him working both flanks as well as the middle, and dropping occasionally behind the midfield line yet with plenty of presence in the attacking third. A telling moment surfaced in Wednesday’s game. Altidore, near the midfield line, escaped his markers and checked back to knock a ball into space, albeit a large space and one left open when none of his teammates moved to claim the ball. So he retrieved it himself, about 70 yards from the Danish goal, and passed it to a teammate.

Altidore suffered five fouls and committed three, a stat line of at least moderate activity. He isn’t fleet of foot and never will be, but too often his dearth of blazing speed is mistaken for sloth. He was fast enough to chase down Tim Chandler’s long ball and evade two defenders to thump it into the net, and he glided behind the Danish back line to turn a Bradley chip into the middle for Johannsson to finish.

A lot of his work off the ball didn’t draw notice because of the ineptitude around him. He contributed a fair share of that himself, but as the goal and assist demonstrated, he worked enough to be in the right spots when a wheezing attack generated those rare situations. Chasing that ball down from Chandler on the left side and smacking it out of the air is a top-class play on any day.

“It was a great ball from Timmy,” said Altidore.” It looked like the defenders were confused a little bit, and I just tried to kind of stay with the play. Then, I tried to hit it first time and get it on target and it went in.”

The key phrase is “stay with the play.” Nearly 20 minutes into the game, the Americans were floundering, yet Altidore’s perseverance and boldness turned a hopeful hoof into a goal, and a superb goal at that. Perhaps not quite as spectacular as Bendtner’s arrowed winner, but a commendable blend of inspiration and execution, as was his touch to Johannsson for the second goal.

Surely the hounds of hate would have descended had his spurning of a chance not led to a goal. As it turns out, one doesn’t have to search very hard for comments from those who contend that in both cases he was “lucky” to a) hit the first one inside the post via a slight deflection and b) forego a chance to play a pass that was converted. Whatever.

Most observers concur the move from Dutch club AZ, for which he scored 39 goals in 67 appearances, to Sunderland blew up in his face. (So did the decision of MLS to sell him for $10 million at age 18 to Spanish club Villarreal, but business is business.) The Black Cats didn’t bolster the rest of the squad and couldn’t find the right solution for a manager either. Signed during the reign of the combustible Paolo Di Canio, Altidore saw out his tenure, as well as that of interim manager Kevin Ball. The eventual “long-term” replacement, Gus Poyet, lasted about as long as Altidore in a shifted time frame. Hired in October 2013, Poyet got the sack last week.

Optimists believe Altidore's best has yet to be seen, and at 25, regular playing time and consistent scoring for TFC will boost his confidence and hence production for the USA. Cynics are sure the lowered demands of MLS will numb his motivation and sharpness. In modern parlance, if you stick up for Jozy you’re a fan-boy; his detractors are haters.

The reality is that until someone else of size and power and at least a semblance of goalscoring acumen – whatever happened to Terrence Boyd, anyway? – supplants him, Altidore is in the picture. Get used to it.

29 comments about "Altidore polarizes the soccer world once again".
  1. R2 Dad, March 27, 2015 at 9:47 a.m.

    I think the lack of a world-class pairing a la Heskey/Owens makes the use of a target man seem primitive in comparison to the free-flowing play of other national teams. Especially without the aforementioned wing play.

  2. Paul Lorinczi, March 27, 2015 at 10:16 a.m.

    Isn't everything a zero sum game today? Jozy is going to be fine moving forward. If he and Bradley are able to replicate their success with the USMNT for TFC, confidence will help Jozy score goals on the international level. Look at Asamoah Gyan who too was at Sunderland. He left to a lesser league, scores goals and still does it on the international level. Jozy will be fine.

  3. John Bishop, March 27, 2015 at 10:32 a.m.

    As much as I would hate to agree with Ridge, because I believe he is bias in many of his opinions, I must agree with this article. Jozy is the best we have at his position. ANd if not, he is pretty close. I think the knock on him is we all believe he could be better and has not reached his potential. Fact is we should really see the lack of great USA players as what it is, the fault of our inept youth system. If we take a harder look at our current Youth teams, their recruiting proccess and coaching what are we to expect in the near future?? Thats where the real problem is. Jozy is a product of our Youth System. We just dont do an even mediocre job of picking the best players at the youth level or keeping top talent potential in the mix like the successful countries do. And the few that we do pick we are clearly not picking the right coiaching staff to further develop them. How many more Jozys are we going to complain about in the next 20 years?? Lets look at the root of the problem first before we bitch.

  4. Andrew Kear, March 27, 2015 at 10:35 a.m.

    Jozy is simply the best US player right now. The criticism made of Jozy are similar to what was said about Giorgio Chinaglia of the NY Cosmos nearly nearly 40 years ago. I think Jozy has more speed then Chinaglia did. Both need to be served balls to be effective. Chinaglia needed Beckenbaur to serve him balls, just as Jozy needs Bradley and Dempsey to feed him the ball.

  5. Tim Brown, March 27, 2015 at 11:50 a.m.

    I think had Dempsey played in the Denmark game, he would have added another quality player with Altidore and Bradley and we would have won the game. Lets see how Altidore does here this year before we male judgement. I think he is already better because he will actually get to play at TFC.

  6. Tim Brown, March 27, 2015 at 11:51 a.m.

    That's make judgement.

  7. Xavi Hernandez , March 27, 2015 at 11:56 a.m.

    @John - personal experience with US soccer and youth development. Super-technical son told he's too small and slow for soccer, quits organized soccer at 15 and plays informally with immigrant teams. Goes to Brazil at 17 for the summer and impresses. Offered a one-week trial at Gremio at 18, gets a gap year from college to give it a try, tickets purchased, decides at the last second that he loves soccer but can't stand any of the people in it, cumulative effect of the toxic US soccer environment . Takes up track and field and at 18 as a 5'9" college freshman runs a 50.3 open 400 and 1:55 open 800m. Not so small and slow anymore, soccer's loss :)

  8. Raymond Weigand, March 27, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    @John - I think you are on to something. The youth program showcases many talented and athletic players - perhaps what is missing is the transition from great talent to great player. A symptom of this is that we have a few hundred kids playing in Europe ... with no salary cap ... better competition ... and a soccer culture that rewards the current best performers. And as Xavi reminds us ... we have even more talented kids who would rather be great in a different sport or different endeavor.

  9. beautiful game, March 27, 2015 at 12:19 p.m.

    I can't hold my breath for Jozy and MB to be the cogs of the NT squad. They are important, but a lack of a truly gifted playmaker and finisher is key to raising the success bar. And I don't put LD in that category; a Giuseppe Rossi type is needed.

  10. Nalin Carney, March 27, 2015 at 12:27 p.m.

    I agree...Jozy is the best we have and when we can get him some support I think he will be a better "knock down " player than McBride ... and I think he has a better appetite for goal.

  11. Al Gebra, March 27, 2015 at 12:39 p.m.

    The problem is not Jozy. Maybe he Has been put in a position where he can't succeed. But I don't think so. If he has effective midfielders who can feed him quality balls, he'll score more. Bradley the loper is no where near one of those effective midfielders.
    I remember when Luis Hernández was considered by most to be a big disappointment in his two seasons with the Galaxy for not scoring enough goals. His comment: In Mexico, I am fed 10 or more good balls a game. Here, I am lucky if I get 2.

  12. Andrew Kear, March 27, 2015 at 12:49 p.m.

    The core of the team is Dempsey, Jozy, and Bradley. With those three all playing the U.S. might of won against Denmark.

  13. Timothy Penrod, March 27, 2015 at 2:04 p.m.

    Altidore consistently puts in thankless work and covers his share of ground during games. He did the same thing at Sunderland, but the lack of quality service and consistently being left on an island with no support didn't help his case. He missed his share of chances, but now that he's receiving more consistent opportunities, I expect the scoring level to return.

    Only sour point of the article is the pot-shot at Terrence Boyd...the guy makes a positive move to RB Salzburg, gets injured, just about recovers, then does his ACL. Not sure if that information was missed, or just ignored. Similar player to Jozy, young, and will continue to get better. Not saying he's the answer, more an observation of an unnecessary cheap shot.

  14. John Polis, March 27, 2015 at 2:32 p.m.

    Your headline might be a little strong here. I was a keen observer of Jozy while he was at Sunderland. I'm not sure why everyone was so harsh on him -- because no one scores goals at Sunderland. The other two guys that have been starting most of last year and this year didn't fare much better. I think there is undue pressure on Americans, as well as their non-American coaches (who must justify why they are using an American in the first place). Jozy is still a young player and is going to get better. Let's all step back and take a deep breath. I'd still prefer that he be in Europe OR I would prefer that he play on an American MLS team rather than one in Canada (Bradley too). What we should be concerned about is trying to find another player who has as much promise as Jozy so that he, too, can be in the national team player pool.

  15. Rick Estupinan, March 27, 2015 at 2:57 p.m.

    JBICHOP,you are right.I see here in L. Vegas NV,playing in public parks,better young Football(Soccer)players than the ones I see playing for the US National team.There is one in particular,talented,quick with his feet,making intelligent moves that is a pleasure to watch.But where are those 'scoutstuff'?.It's really a shame that kids like this can not replace those inept players we have today.

  16. Ric Fonseca, March 27, 2015 at 3:04 p.m.

    OH boy!!! @ John Polis, the last I heard Canada is part of the "North American" part of the Western Hemisphere.... To RM, another article I almost agree with, however, Jazzy is still lacking some penache, and yes I was impressed how much of the field of play he covered, yet, whenever I looked for MB, well, where the heck was he, other than feeding a nice pass to Jazzy. That he will be the forward we've been waiting for, well, pilgrims, I've some beach front property in Arizona, because goodness gracious sakes man alive, these very words have been said about Wondolwsky, et. al, and yet, I wonder when someone, maybe RM???, will call for the likes of Flush Gordon of the LAG???

  17. cisco martinez, March 27, 2015 at 5:24 p.m.

    Jozy in my opinion has the ability to be a top forward in Europe. He is physically strong, technically can hold the ball well, tactically he needs the knack to be a consistent goal scorer, but overall there is a reason why Villareal, Sunderland, and some of the German clubs want him. Playing for Sunderland, I personally think he was not given enough chances to start and perform, the lack of service to him was abysmal.

  18. Zoe Willet, March 27, 2015 at 5:28 p.m.

    Count me in as a 'fan-boy' (or in my case, girl). It was gratifying to see him playing well and scoring (and what a smile!), and also to see him and Johannsson partnering again.

  19. BJ Genovese, March 27, 2015 at 8:24 p.m.

    Altidore is not world class. He is given chance after chance after chance because US soccer desperatley needs a poster boy(s). Sooner or later hes going to get a couple of goals. If anything hes an oxymoron to the style of play Klinsman talks about having. Hes a longball player and does it well because to quote the unimaginative Taylor Twellman... HES BIG, STRONG, AND PHYSICAL. The Danes showed world class with there touches and individual movement with the ball combined with team play. Just look at there first three touches during the game. Snappy and perfect with 1v1 not a problem. I watch Altidore run and it looks like hes leading with his head, like hes top heavy. I watch the Danes, they play firm to the pitch with ball or without. US Soccer has a problem with moving on, especially after the world cup. Klinsman wont move away from certain players because he has to justify his picks for the 2014 World Cup... I.E Brek Shea... He'll try to convert a player to a totally different position before letting go.

  20. David V, March 27, 2015 at 9:29 p.m.

    Hire the real Xavi Hernandez, instead of Qattar, pay Xavi his $10M Euros per year, and we'd revolutionize the country from the ground up... no world cups for the US until the generation, which hasn't been born yet, grows up under a real system

    http://www.marca.com/en/2015/03/27/en/football/barcelona/1427443717.html

  21. Andrew Kear, March 28, 2015 at 12:07 a.m.

    It must irk Klinsmann that he can't find any Germans as good as Jozy, Clint, and Bradley.

  22. charles davenport, March 28, 2015 at 9:49 a.m.

    Asamoah Gyan not good enough to play for Sunderland??

  23. John Bishop, March 28, 2015 at 2:08 p.m.

    Andrew, he knows where they are, on Germany's first team.

  24. John Bishop, March 28, 2015 at 2:14 p.m.

    David, you think signing Xavi will revolutionize USA?? Are you serious?? We do have clubs that develop players, very few but they are there. Problem is not that. We live in a country that boasts about having 90-100% USSDA players on our National Youth Teams but losing to teams we used to beat. What good does it do to devlop Xavi's if as a prerequisite they muct come from a USSDA CLUB TO GET on National Teams?? We have all kinds of players that are top talent anywhere but we go by latest fads to determine the type of players we want on our USA Teams. Spain had small players in their World Cup run. So we started looking at smaller tecnical players much harder, ignoring the big tecnical ones or stivking them on defense. Problem is our small tecnical players dont have the soccer smarts Spain does or Barcelona. Why?? Becqause our USSDA doesnt know how to train smarter players to that level. Not even close.

  25. Kent James, March 29, 2015 at 11:48 a.m.

    Ridge, good article, but the comments suggest you're wrong about the polarizing aspect of his play (though I'll confess, I thought you'd be right). Jozy will never be world class (but then very few players are), and early in his career I think he was a bit lazy. So his detractors are not entirely wrong, but as most of the commenters above pointed out, he's currently the best we have, he's good at holding off players (and I actually think his lay-offs have become quite good), and he needs support to be effective. My only complaint about his play is that he seems to be surprisingly ineffective in the air (without improving this part of his game, he'll never be as good as McBride was). Andrew and John, kudos for the humor...(and as with a lot of good humor, uncomfortably close to the truth...).

  26. Bob Ashpole, March 30, 2015 at 3:10 p.m.

    Losing a friendly doesn't concern me. What concerns me is that I see no progress at all in the quality of team play or in the quality of individual players. I am not looking at the MNT coach to be a Bora Milutinović coming up with tactics to get an underdog team to punch above their weight. To expand the player pool, we need to involve more players in training camps. Using friendlies to "trial" new players is not going to lead to better team play.

  27. BJ Genovese, March 30, 2015 at 4:37 p.m.

    Ive been saying this for a about two years now... Expand the pool. Bring in a B team camp or whatever you want to call it. Red White and Blue team camp. Just stop trying to identify and develop on the go.

  28. Scott Johnson, March 30, 2015 at 6:14 p.m.

    Unrelated to Altidore (or Klinsmann), or USSDA or any specific organization. It seems, though, that there is too much early segregation in US soccer development--that attempts are made to identify "elite" players early on, get them into ODL programs or academy teams or whatnot--so they are exposed, on a continual basis, to other elite players, rather than "wasting time" with they kids who may be good but aren't elite, or who may be talented but aren't interested in a full-time training regimen. The problem with this, though, is the other kids don't benefit from playing with the elite kids, which probably dilutes their talent, and makes it harder for late-blooming players to move up to the more elite levels. (Another reason why street soccer is a good idea; it provides a forum wherein lesser players can mix with better ones, something which stratified youth soccer often seems vo avoid...)

  29. Kent James, April 1, 2015 at 10:49 p.m.

    Scott, I couldn't agree more. I think that (separating kids by skill earlier and earlier) is one of the worst trends in youth soccer. Skilled kids need to play with skilled kids (some of the time), so once a week with a good skills coach, or a pick-up game with older, more talented players. But removing the best players from a league destroys the quality of play in the league, and you lose the late bloomers (and those numbers are significant).

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