Where to next for USMNT striker Jozy Altidore?
If my last column seemed to hint at Oracle like accuracy in football forecasting, let me bring myself right back down to earth with a couple of tales that went awry. The simpler case is actually not Jozy Altidore, rather it is QguchiOnweyu a.k.a. Gooch. When Gooch first appeared on the US Men’s National Team landscape, my eyes lit up.
Finally, here was a guy built like a linebacker (for the uninitiated, that is a defensive position in American football that calls for a combination of size, strength, speed and agility) who passed on American football and the other American sports for which he was equally well built, basketball and baseball, somehow selecting soccer. In my mind’s eye, I was already envisioning Gooch’s (future) success, which would prompt more such “multiple choice” athletes to pick soccer as their sport.
It made my forecast of the USMNT lifting the World Cup in 2026 seem way too conservative. Alas, pictures may be better than a thousand words, but they can also deceive you a thousand times more easily. Built like a linebacker, yes. However, when you look at the “thousand words”, Gooch had size and strength, but he lacked speed and agility. Looking at his rollercoaster career, I wasn’t the only one.
He always did well in the lesser leagues (US, Belgium), enough for scouts to salivate at the picture of the linebacker. Every time he stepped up (England, Italy), talented attackers exploited his lack of speed and ability to turn. He literally withered away on the bench till he was traded down. For the record, I haven’t seen linebacker types rushing to fill the spaces on the USMNT back line.
Altidore’s style of play is a lot like Emile Heskey
My first glimpse of Jozy Altidore was when he was 16, playing in the MLS dor Chicago Fire. He had come up through the youth ranks. At barely 5’8” or 5’9” and very skinny at the time, I saw him hold off hefty defenders, capping his performance with a burst of speed and a smart finish. I recall shooting off an email to friends that this guy was going to be a star.
When he filled out to his current dimensions, I started babbling on about the next Emile Heskey, a wee bit smaller, but definitely quicker. Heskey is rarely given his due, because strikers are always judged by their goal scoring numbers. Those critics should be bean counters, not sportswriters. Heskey was possibly the best player ever with his back to the goal, the flick on that sends a speedy partner on goal, or hold up play that allows his teammates to break out from defense to attack. Fortunately, England’s managers were smarter than the critics and Heskey was a mainstay on the roster.
If I look back at my comparison in the previous paragraph, it actually explains the roller coaster ride Altidore has been on. With Altidore’s combination of size and speed, he is excellent when he is running at defenders, or in turning them with his strength and accelerating away. I suspect he developed these aspects since they undoubtedly gave him the best shots at goal.
Why Altidore was a success in Eredivisie, but failed in the EPL
Although he is reasonably strong with his back towards the goal, it is nowhere near as developed as the rest of his game. Therein lies the rub. It comes down to a simple question of demand versus supply. His success came when he played for AZ Alkmaar, a club close to the top of the Dutch League. Against that opposition, he didn’t have to spend all of his time maintaining a lone vigil in the opponent’s half while his teammates desperately defended their goal.
Moreover, he got good service, sending him at defenders – his strength. Compare that to his two stints in England – Hull and Sunderland. They are both towards the bottom of the league and require their forward to almost exclusively devote himself to hold up play – his (relative) weakness. There are several less talented players who are better at this task. Back goes Jozy to the bench, his confidence withering away. Strikers are nothing when they lack confidence.
I really would have liked to see him get a fair shot - with a team with a mid-table pedigree, say Aston Villa or Newcastle, where there is some commitment to possession and attack. We might have been able to assess his true potential. If you look at Jozy's USMNT performances, the results are very similar. Playing solo against the elite teams, he doesn't score much. Give him a shot racing towards goal and the results are much better.
Rumours have Altidore heading back to the MLS. There may be some benefit to that. With most of the team available locally, Klinsmann can spend more time with them. Alas, the best guys, including Altidore, may be a bit long in the tooth for 2018. I would prefer Altidore to go back to Holland, or even France, where the style is more suited to him. AZ Alkmaar would be ideal since he would be welcomed back by the fans. This would still pit him against potential World Cup opponents while helping him rebuild his confidence.