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Altidore shows potential with AZ Alkmaar

FoxSoccer.com Paddy Higgs
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New kid in town: Jozy Altidore has impressed many during his short time with AZ Alkmaar. (Photo by VI Images via Getty Images)  

From Spain to England, Turkey and now the Netherlands; change has been a constant for Jozy Altidore since leaving New York in 2008.

It is why Altidore – now in the Dutch Eredivisie with AZ Alkmaar – is delighted to have finally found a home. Having experienced such change is so few years, it also explains his calm confidence that the future of the US men's national team is in good hands with Jurgen Klinsmann.

It is easy to forget Altidore is just 21, given it is now five years since he made his MLS debut for New York in 2006 as a raw 16-year-old.

His 15 goals in 37 appearances for the Red Bulls were enough to convince Spanish La Liga outfit Villarreal to part with around US$10 million – a sum that remains the biggest transfer fee received by the MLS and one of its clubs.

But while the coastal Castellón city may be popular for tourists, life at Villarreal proved to be anything but a beach for Altidore, who spend as much time away from the Costa del Azahar. Blocked during this three years by Nilmar, Nihat Kahveci, Joseba Llorente and fellow New Jersey native Guiseppe Rossi, Alitdore spent time on loan in the Segunda (Xerez), England (Hull City), and Turkey (Bursaspor).

Enter AZ Alkmaar, with manager Gertjan Verbeek in the market for a striker after the departure of Kolbeinn Sigþórsson to Ajax. Moving quickly after Villarreal granted them permission to negotiate with the player, AZ swooped to sign Altidore on a four-year deal.

Now, after three years of frustration and minstrel-like wanderings, Altidore has once again found his beat. He took just 15 minutes of his league debut in August to endear himself to his new club's fans, nodding home AZ's third in their 3-1 win over traditional heavyweights PSV Eindhoven. Five goals in six appearances have followed, marking him as a crucial part of a young AZ side that sits joint-top of the Eredivisie after six games.

“From day one, I felt different here than anywhere else,” Altidore said. “That’s a good start, but I’m just trying to continue doing good things here. “I’m just trying to be consistent – that’s the most important thing.”

It is only a handful of months since Altidore was in Turkey, but takes just a few seconds with him to sense the difference.

Gone are the burdened shoulders, made heavy by the hurdles that face most footballers trying to crack it in Europe. Back is the gunslinger swagger and good-natured grin.

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"It’s fun. The team plays a wonderful style of football," Altidore said. "You get to express yourself and that’s tremendous.

"It’s good for you."

His performance in AZ’s 4-0 Europa League Group G win against Malmö on September 15 best illustrated the confident player he now is.

Altidore has remained very much a take-it-or-leave-it striker, even throughout his travels and travails. His touch in the first half against Malmö is occasionally heavy, and all three of the dummied runs he attempts do not quite come off. But his work-rate to continually harass defenders is impressive, and he links up smartly with teammates Roy Beerens, Brett Holman and Adam Maher.

He has also lost none of his dynamism and eye for the spectacular, as he reminds those watching with the opener against the Norwegian champions after 21 minutes. Pouncing on a clearing header from an opposition defender, Altidore swivels under little pressure and – needing no further invitation – hammers a 25-yard shot into the right-hand corner of the net.

Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” peals out over the PA system as Altidore runs to celebrate with the fans in the corner, who are as delighted as he is. Just seven games into his career with AZ, it is those sort of goals that are fast making Altidore a cult hero in Alkmaar.

A one-team town of around 94,000 people, Alkmaar has the quaint canals of bigger sibling Amsterdam but without the occasional seediness of the Dutch capital. Known for its cheese but just as proud of its football club, Alkmaar celebrated heartily their last Eredivisie title in 2008-09 under then-manager Louis van Gaal.

The locals are passionate about AZ and are only too happy to tell American tourists of their delight on Altidore’s start to the club, whether they ask for it or not.

“The town’s great. It’s small, but there’s a lot to do,” Altidore said. “The people are great. Like I said, it’s a very cozy place.”

But while his club career has finally found some solid ground, Altidore has experienced plenty of change at international level since Bob Bradley’s sacking in July. The arrival of former Bayern Munich and Germany striker and manager Klinsmann has brought new tactics and teammates for Altidore in the USMNT set-up.

Altidore is keen to pay tribute to Bradley – the coach who handed him his first international cap in 2007 – but believes Klinsmann is the perfect man to herald an ‘exciting’ new era for the US.

“First thing, I want to thank Bob. Bob Bradley, I think, did a superb job for his tenure,” he said.

“These things happen in football, but I think Klinsmann brings something new, something fresh.

“That’s always important in the national team, because I think some players can get complacent. So I think he’s done some good things for us.”

Results have been hard to come by since Bradley’s departure, with two losses and a draw in three friendlies under Klinsmann. But the past three years now have Altidore well-versed on the virtue of patience, and he is calm on any immediate concerns over Klinsmann’s tenure.

“I think so (results will improve),” Altidore said.

“I think with the style of play he’s trying to put on us, for sure, in three years, we’ll have it down and we’ll be very good going into the (2014) World Cup.”

From the aisles of the English Premier League to the rabid terraces of Argentina, football and a sound dose of itchy feet have taken Paddy Higgs just about everywhere. Australia-based but with his wee hours devoted to watching the world game wherever it is played, he contributes to a number of websites and magazines. Follow him at @Paddy_Higgs.

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