By Kevin Koczwara
Jozy Altidore’s move from Major League Soccer to Europe looked like a bust a few months ago. The former New York Red Bulls forward moved to La Liga side Villareal on June 4, 2008 for $10 million, making him the most expensive American player ever bought from Major League Soccer, surpassing the $4 million Fulham paid for Clint Dempsey. He was just 18 years old then. The world looked like it was at his feet.
Things didn’t work out in Spain for Altidore. The American forward scored three goals in 17 appearances for the Yellow Submarine — granted, only six were starts — and didn’t fit the fit bill for his price tag. The American didn’t feature in Villareal’s future plans because he wasn’t maturing or progressing the way the team envisioned and he didn’t really fit anywhere into the system the team plays. After failed loan spells at Hull City, while it was in the English Premier League, he scored one goal and contributed three assists in 28 league appearances in 2009/10, and a mid-season stint in Turkey’s Super Lig in 2011 with Bursaspor, he managed just one goal in 11 appearances, Villareal decided it was time to sell Altidore on for a major loss in its investment.
Since his move to the Eredivisie, the Netherlands top-division, Altidore has shown the glimpses of the talent that made him the brightest talent in American soccer just a few seasons ago. Since joining AZ, Altidore has quickly started checking off the boxes on his goalscoring resume that have been left empty during his European travels. A goal in his first appearance: Check. Two goals in his first start: Check. A goal in European competition: Check.
It only took a few games, but people are beginning to see the signs of the player people thought Altidore could be when he was starting for the New York Red Bulls as a 16-year-old. He has good pace. He posses the strength needed to hold off defenders. He has a knack for finding the back of the net — something that seemed to drift away from him while travelling the ups-and-downs of European soccer. And most important, Altidore looks like he has that swagger about him again. He looks confident on the ball and willing to take on defenders no matter the odds, important characteristics for a successful forward. And AZ is the benefactor of taking a chance on a player, who is still just 21-years-old, who looked lost and confused playing in any other jersey but the Red, White and Blue.
But why has it all clicked all of a sudden for Altidore? Since leaving New York, Altidore has been employed as either a hold-up striker or a winger. Which is strange because when he’s at his best for the USMNT, Altidore is running towards goal and taking on defenders, not playing supply line for his teammates or breaking in from the wing. It looks like someone at AZ did their research and decided to focus on Altidore’s skills as a traditional No. 9 rather than his better than average passing or his tendency to drift in and out of games, like wingers have a habit of doing.
The impact in the approach to Altidore’s skill set and of the move has been immediate. Altidore netted two goals in this summer’s Gold Cup for the U.S. before an injury sidelined him. And now, he’s found his touch in front of the goal for AZ.
The Right Move
The Erevidisie is a forward moving league where teams allow youth to come through the ranks, get their games, and where skill on the ball and off is a must. AZ is a club known for its youth system and its approach to allowing younger players to build the squad and takeover the ranks when it sells off its more experienced and coveted players.
The Netherlands traditionally is exceptionally good at bringing out the best in players, especially attacking players, and honing their skills. It’s no surprise that the Dutch National Team is usually one of the most skilled teams in the world. It’s youth academies — like the ones at Ajax, PSV, AZ and others — stress skill and ability and in turn reward players who progress well with games at the senior level.
Altidore, again, is still just 21-years old. He has years to grow into his body and to hone his skills. He is a late comer to the Dutch system, but he still has plenty of youth and potential that could use some touching-up.
Looking back the short career of Jozy Altidore, it is easy to dismiss with Villareal¹ as a failure, but that’s too generic an examination.
As a teenager, Altidore showed exceptional talent while progressing with the New York Red Bulls. He was a big fish in a little pond at the time. He had American soccer fans grovelling at his feet because he was part of the next generation, the generation of hope and skill for the USMNT. He signified the next great hope, the next Landon Donovan. He was a highly tauted prospect that big clubs in Europe monitored. Villareal forked over the cash to sign him. Off he went to Spain, to the Yellow Submarine, to a team known for its attractive, attacking-style and ability to breed gifted players and fit them into a system. Everything looked perfect for Altidore.
But it didn’t work². And it’s time to examine maybe why moving to the Netherlands might be the best bet for young American players looking to explore Europe instead of heading to a prestigious club in a prestigious league — not to say the likes of PSV or Ajax of the Eredivisie aren’t prestigious, they just don’t have the same kind of bags of cash that teams in larger markets have — where playing time is sparse and chances are slim to break into the senior team.
The Dutch youth systems are world-renowned. The philosophy and focus on technical
skill gives a major advantage to players who work through the ranks in Holland. Ajax is the supreme example.
Once a world-super power in the soccer world, Ajax has been known for its ability to develop players and an ability to teach players not only how to play with the ball at their feet, but also the tactical and positioning side of the game, something that is often overlooked by the media, fans and scouts. This type of focus by teams in the Netherlands has made the league competitive.
It’s also a league that allows for young players to break through and get a chance to prove themselves. This strategy is what keeps teams in the league on their feet financially. By being able to teach young players the proper techniques and then allowing them to play and show off their skills, it puts a hefty price tag on players and it gets bigger, more wealthy clubs interested in the players because team executives know that the players dazzling in Holland are well versed and technically superior to players who may have more physical gifts, but less time on the field.
That style, that willingness to play younger talent, will pay off for Altidore at AZ.
Altidore isn’t a hold-up style striker. Yes, he is big. But that doesn’t pigeon hole him as a hold-up type player. He is more of an attacking forward, someone who wants the ball at his feet so he can run at a defender, use his strength and speed to beat a defender and get off a good shot. Since playing in Villareal’s system, Altidore’s positional play has gotten better as well, but it can still improve. The more time Altidore spends playing at AZ in the Netherlands, the better he will be at running off the back shoulder of defenders and looking for space to score. The better he will be at picking his chances to convert the chances he is presented.
So why don’t more Americans looking to go abroad look to play in the Netherlands? The MLS looks more like the Championship, England’s second division, than it does the Eredivisie. The MLS is an aggressive, fast-paced league with lots of focus on the long ball over the top rather than quick passing to the feet of players. American players tend to rely on the ‘never give up’ mentality rather than their skill, and thus, the development of skill is lost. So, American players can be forgiven for trying to secure moves to England because the style of play makes sense to them. In return, it can also be said that its safe to bet that Dutch clubs overlook many American players who want to move to Europe when their time comes because they don’t have the technical or tactical awareness that those teams are looking for. Add on the fact that the MLS is difficult to negotiate transfers with and by the time American players can leave on a free transfer in free agency, they are already over the age of 25, which isn’t enticing for Eredivisie teams. It’s a perfect mismatch on so many levels, but it could be the perfect partnership if the two-sides started working closer together, and like Michael Bradley³before him, Altidore could be the prime example of how it could work.
Altidore made his move at the right time. He was in need of regular playing time. He needed a fresh start. He needed to play in a league and with a team focused on letting him be himself while helping him develop his ball skills. Altidore could be the launching pad for a movement to the Eredivisie# for future American players instead of paths to England, Spain or
Germany. If he succeeds in the Eredivisie and young, talented American players follow his steps to Holland, it could be a step in the right direction for the U.S. National Team as it looks to jump to the next level on the World Stage and recruit more skilled players.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at Kevin.Koczwara@thesoccerguysonline.com.
- Yes, I know Villareal is not a “big” club on the world scale and only recently started to make itself a regular in the Champions League. But, comparatively speaking, right now, Villareal is a big European team with a better than average squad and it has lots of competition for playing time between its forwards.
- It’s interesting to note that Villareal and New Jersey born forward Giuseppe Rossi needed to move on from Manchester United, a huge club, as a youngster to get the playing time he needed to develop into the 30-goal scorer he is now. His path to stardom looks very similar to Altidore’s, just at a higher and more successful pace. Both players moved to smaller clubs to get more experience and chances, its paid off, so far. U.S. Soccer now has to hope that Altidore continues to progress like Rossi, who chose to play for Italy instead of the U.S. because of his ancestry.
- Michael Bradley made his first move to Europe from the MLS to Dutch side, SC Heerenveen and enjoyed his most successful time playing in the Netherlands’ first division, scoring an American record for goals in a single season, 16.