Jozy Altidore’s lessons from obscurity

Jozy Altidore’s narrative was slipping away from him. Painfully, he’d gone from the big next thing to the next Freddy Adu – a synonym for talent wasted, in just three years.

It was the summer of 2011. Altidore was only 21, but it had been three years since his $10 million transfer from the New York Red Bulls to Villarreal in Spain that made him the most expensive American of all time. He’d warmed the bench for Villarreal and endured a brief loan to Xerez in that first year. In his second year he was loaned Hull City of the Premier League: there he got into trouble for tweeting, arriving late to games, and was sent back to Spain early. He scored just once in 28 appearances. In his third year, he played in a dozen games each for Villarreal and Bursaspor of the Turkish league, on yet another loan, without making much of a dent.

The facts were stark. Fans back home had already written him off.

Fourteen months on, the 22-year-old Altidore is a changed player, a credit to the training he has received in Holland. He nonetheless remains a cautionary tale: even he admits he never received the training he should have at an early age.

“It’s a process that a lot of young players miss in America and we need to get better at,” says Altidore, bluntly. “Physically and technically we have what other countries have, even if a lot of people don’t believe it, but tactically is where we have to get better.”

“I always felt fine,” Altidore adds of those dark days. “I felt people put unreasonable expectations on me. But it’s part of sports and the culture we live in. You have no choice but to accept the way it is. I never panicked because I wasn’t scoring X [number of goals]. I always felt it was a process.”

Altidore was nevertheless aware that something needed to change. He was raw coming out of Major League Soccer, a physical specimen who got by on size and athleticism. Nobody had ever taught him the finer points of the game. There is no time for apprenticeship in hypercompetitive leagues like the Premier League and La Liga. After five and a half years as a pro, Altidore still lacked an education. Worse still, Villarreal wasn’t helping.

“If you’re not in the starting lineup, you’re not getting a lot of training,” recalls Altidore. “They’re 45 minute sessions and then they focus on the starting 11 and you’re done.”

So when Altidore was being pursued by AZ Alkmaar of the Dutch Eredivisie during the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, he reached out to United States teammate Michael Bradley, who had spent his formative years with Heerenveen. Bradley’s old coach Gertjan Verbeek had turned the 18-year-old Bradley from prospect into a finished product — and was now managing AZ.

Bradley told Altidore that Verbeek was a disciplinarian who demanded hard work but took pride in making his players better. After AZ landed Altidore on a free transfer – Villarreal had given up on him in spite of the three years left on his contract and the size of its investment – Verbeek set about remaking the burly striker from scratch.

Altidore had always been the sort of forward to face up to goal and try to bull his way through. “At New York, I scored a lot of goals running at defenders and isolating them,” Altidore says. “That was my game.”

Verbeek patiently schooled him in the arts of holding up play with his back to goal as the advanced striker in a 4-3-3 system, moving laterally rather than from low to high. At long last, Altidore was getting an education.

Verbeek’s project has yielded spectacular results. After initially struggling to lock down the starting job, Altidore scored 15 league goals last season. This year, as his team’s undisputed striker, he has already scored eight league goals in just seven games, including a couple beauties like last weekend’s goal against RKC.

“That’s a testament purely to training every day,” says Altidore. “I’m lucky to have come and gone through this. The Dutch league is the type of place where they really focus on getting you better. There teams just prepare for games and the development part goes away

“We spend a lot of time in training just getting better at our trades and that’s different from around the world. But we work on the little things: timing, how to time your runs off the winger, whether to cut to the first post or second post.”

“I’ve become more of a target man,” adds Altidore. “It’s a lot of tactical things I’m learning. The more I learn the more I find out I don’t know. You have to learn to move off the ball. I had no clue about that. Soccer today is played in a 50-yard radius. It’s not like one team is at one end line and the other is at the other end line. You have to move from side to side and create space for others.”

The plan, as hatched during the Gold Cup, was to take a step back, master the craft, and then take another crack at the top. “It wasn’t going to be easy,” says Altidore. “But that was the idea, to come here and try to improve myself for the next step in my career. This was a time I needed to re-find myself and really develop better. So coming to Holland was perfect for me for that.”

Next stop for Altidore? The top.