Altidore finding peace in Holland
“When I was younger.”
Jozy Altidore caught himself in mid-sentence and let out a laugh at what he had just said. The 22-year-old US national team striker realized for a second just how funny it was to talk about his younger years, as if he still wasn’t in the early stages of a career filled with so much promise.
Not everyone might see the humor in that, least of all people who have placed expectations on him since he turned professional at 16 and gave early glimpses of potential greatness. He was lighting up Major League Soccer with goals before he could even legally buy lottery tickets. He moved to Europe on a $10 million transfer at the age of 18, the same age when he scored a goal against the senior Mexican national team in his US national team debut. He started every game at the 2010 World Cup for the United States at age 20.
With those accomplishments came more and more expectations. Before Altidore knew it, he was being considered in some circles as a failure for not hitting the ground running in Europe. His move to Villarreal, and subsequent loan stints through various European clubs, only served to leave his career in limbo.
Everything has changed this past year. Villarreal sold Altidore to Dutch club AZ Alkmaar; a squad coached by a proven talent developer in manager Gertjan Verbeek, and a league known for helping attacking players find their form. The move was a dream for Altidore, who was more prepared for this move than any before due to his previous struggles which helped teach him what he needed to watch out for when finding a new team.
"Going into that move, I knew what to look for going to a club," Altidore said. "Early on in my career, I think went a bit blindly into things, and didn’t know what I should look for. When I went to AZ I took my time, I looked for everything I felt that needed to be right for me to go there, and after talking to some people, I realized this was a situation I knew I could do well in.
"That came from learning from the decisions I’ve made in the past, so this time I felt one hundred percent confident."
That confidence showed in Altidore’s first season in the Netherlands. He scored a team-leading 22 goals, finishing tied for seventh in the Eredivisie in goals scored. He showed all the abilities he had shown glimpses of in years past, and thrived playing for a taskmaster coach who never let him slack off.
"He’s a teacher," Altidore said of Verbeek. "He may appear like he’s a bad guy, or this or that, but he means well. He wants to teach his players and he really wants to see what he sees on the training pitch on the playing field."
There were times during the season when Verbeek publicly criticized Altidore, and raised questions about his place on the team. To Altidore, it was just Verbeek being Verbeek, and ultimately that approach helped push Altidore to finish the year strongly and compile a career high in goals.
"That’s the personality he has," Altidore said of Verbeek’s outspoken approach. "People in Holland understand it, but people on the outside, like in America, probably think I was fighting with my coach but it was never like that. He speaks his mind. He’s a straight shooter and he treats all his players like men and wants his best for all his players."
Altidore flourished under Verbeek, the same manager who helped US national team midfielder Michael Bradley enjoy a dream season with Heerenveen. Verbeek sat him at times, choosing to play Charlison Benschop, but Altidore kept responding and kept on scoring goals, finishing the year with a stretch of five goals in six league matches to help AZ push for the Dutch title before falling short.
"The fact you always have to go in every week saying 'I have to do something spectacular to stay in the team' is just how it is in Europe and I think that’s been great for me," Altidore said. "It’s made me learn a lot about myself as a player. It has taught me that you really have no limits as a player, and it's good motivation to have knowing that your spot is always up for grabs."
Altidore is still faced with the battle for playing time heading into the summer, but now it is on the national team front. After having been a locked-in starter for the better part of the past three years, even when he was not playing regularly on the club side, Altidore found himself on the bench for the US national team’s recent World Cup qualifiers against Antigua & Barbuda and Guatemala, playing behind Herculez Gomez.
A major reason for Altidore’s demotion was the fact AZ Alkmaar did not release Altidore to attend the national team training camp in May. The missed training time caused Altidore to lose his fitness and fall behind the rest of the team, which left him playing catch-up upon his arrival.
"It was terrible because I knew what it was going to do to me," Altidore said. "It was a tough pill to swallow but there’s nothing I could do. I had to do what I was told by my club."
The national team benching hasn’t dampened Altidore’s excitement about being a part of the national team. In fact, he considers himself one of Gomez’s biggest fans, even though Gomez is playing in his spot now.
"My approach is I want the guy in front of me to do well because if he does well, we do well," Altidore said. "With a guy like Herculez, it’s a win-win situation for me because he’s a guy I’ve been cheering for, even as a player, from the get-go. He's bounced around, and been in so many tough situations, and now his quality is finally being shown on the national team.
"I'm very happy for him, and want him to do well every time he touches the field," Altidore said. "Of course you want to play, but that’s just how it is and if he plays well, we do well so I’m happy for him."
Altidore will have a chance soon to regain his starting spot. The United States are expected to play Mexico in a friendly in August, before playing back-to-back World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica in September. He is eager for those games to arrive, and eager to regain his starting role.
"At the end of the day, you always have to prove yourself at some point that you belong," Altidore said. "With the national team it’s no different, but it’s more a group thing. You’re going to be on the national team for the next ten years, it’s not like you’re going to transfer and go play for Jamaica, so we have to support each other."
US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann liked what he saw from Altidore in the recent camp, even though his fitness level kept him from starting the team’s recent qualifiers.
"I see him matured, I see him being aware that it takes far more than just talent to become consistent," said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann of Altidore. "I see him having a more consistent season, and having confidence because he scored X amount of goals, and being eager to show that day in and day out.
"He will go through far more education over the next years," Klinsmann said. "They work hard with him at Alkmaar and we make it clear to him that there’s a lot of work ahead of him, and he buys into it. It won’t come overnight but he is on the right path."
For Altidore, the year has still been a major success because, after a three-year struggle, he finally found steady playing time and finally regained the consistent joy of scoring goals. His 22 goals not only showed that he is still capable of being a standout in Europe, but they also showed just how silly it was for some to already write him off because he wasn’t playing right away in Europe.
"I just laugh at it because I was 21-years-old, I had just started my career, and I had people saying I’m washed up," Altidore said of criticism of his first three years in Europe. "It was just hilarious. What other way can I look at it? I have ten more years, 12 more years in my career, so I have a long way to go.
"People need to just let things happen," Altidore said. "You can’t just put expectations on people, and then, when they don’t fulfill it, be disappointed in them, but they’re your expectations. You have to look at what their expectations are.”
Altidore’s expectations heading into next season aren’t exactly modest ones. He wants to improve on his previous season at AZ, and wants to help lead the national team to qualification for the 2014 World Cup. He is enjoying the fruits of his recent success as he takes some well-deserved time off before reporting for training camp with AZ at the end of the month.
On Friday, Altidore will throw out the first pitch at the Miami Marlins-Toronto Blue Jays match in Miami, and on Sunday he will return to the New York City area, where his professional career began with the New York Red Bulls, to promote his charity, the Jozy Altidore Foundation, which raises money for underprivileged children in the United States and Haiti.
Having finally found a club situation that fits him perfectly, and having learned from the trying times of his previous years in Europe, Altidore heads into the next phase of his career both confident and mature.
"I just hope I keep getting better, and I have another great season, and I have another great opportunity at another place if that comes along,” Altidore said. "Just keep improving. That’s all I want.”
"I set realistic expectations. I’m not going to sit here and say I’m going to score 40 goals and challenge Messi for the Ballon d’Or, but what I do want is to improve on last year," Altidore said. "I don’t want to have the same year, I want to have a better year and keep going that way. If I can keep doing that then hopefully I can end up at the highest level possible. That’s the final goal."
At the age of 22, Altidore still has plenty of time to get there, and now, more than at any point in his career, that goal seems within reach.