Altidore's EPL move represents a stern test, but will it pay off?
At some point in late August -- imagine a sunny Saturday afternoon in the aptly-named Stadium of Light -- Jozy Altidore will take the field in the red-and-white stripes of Sunderland AFC hoping to demonstrate the difference between promise and performance.
Five years ago, Spain's Villarreal spent around $10 million to bring the New York Red Bulls' strapping 18-year-old striker to Europe. Altidore had scored all of 16 times as a pro but oozed potential. The sum seemed a reasonable gamble for a club that had just finished second in La Liga.
Altidore scored once in just six appearances with Villarreal and was eventually loaned out to Hull City, then playing in the English Premier League -- the sport's most strenuous, competitive and pressure-packed competition. Instead of bringing out the best in Altidore's athletic arsenal, however, the EPL exposed his lack of development. He scored twice in 30 matches and punctuated his frustrating year with the relegation-bound Tigers with a nasty head-butt of Alan Hutton (then with Sunderland, of all teams).
When Altidore transferred to AZ Alkmaar in the summer of 2011, coach Gertjan Verbeek famously said that his new forward "had no idea what he was doing" and "didn't understand tactics at all."
Now, with a prolific 2012-2013 campaign behind him, it's safe to say Altidore has gotten the hang of it. He set a record for Americans abroad with 31 goals in all competitions, helped AZ win the Dutch Cup and carried that form over to the U.S. national team. Altidore hit last month's World Cup qualifiers on a roll, obliterating his much-discussed international drought with goals in four straight games.
He easily could have elected to remain in the Netherlands next season, basking in the scorer's spotlight while posting the sort of numbers that would cement a significant role at the 2014 World Cup. But elite athletes aren't wired to play it safe. So now Altidore, 23, is back in England, where on Tuesday he signed a four-year contract with Sunderland following a reported $13 million transfer.
Altidore's success certainly isn't guaranteed. But it can't be said that he didn't earn the opportunity. This time, the New Jersey native is a proven commodity who didn't skip a step along the way.
"I have come a long way since then," Altidore told NASN's Soccer Morning in late June. "I am almost a different player and I have learned a lot. I have played 100-plus games [since leaving Hull]. Playing there at that age and playing in the best league in the world, you can't expect to hit the ground running."
It may be a stretch to expect him to do that in August as well -- a new city, new coach, new teammates and a new way of playing are enough to challenge just about anybody. Then there's the matter of trying to score goals against the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, and Chelsea.
The question then, is this: He may have earned this chance, but after striving for so long to find his groove at a European club and to break through with the U.S., why not stay at AZ and carry that momentum into the World Cup? Why risk it all and start from scratch at a level at which only two other Americans -- Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey -- have managed to score consistently?
"As an American, you very rarely have an opportunity when you get to choose where and when you go," said retired goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who made his own World Cup-year move to England (with Tottenham Hotspur) back in 2001.
"Jozy pretty much got his value up as high as he's going to get it playing at AZ and now they need to cash in on that," Keller told SI.com. "I'm sure there's a little bit in his head saying, 'It's a World Cup year', but at the same time he has enough confidence that he's in a much better place right now, that' he's going to go to a new club and do very well."
Moving to a "bigger" league or club in the season preceding a World Cup has been a rarity for American players, and hasn't often met with success.
Claudio Reyna blazed the U.S. trail to Sunderland in '01, moving south from Glasgow Rangers. But the U.S. captain already was an established European professional with previous stints at Bayer Leverkusen and VfL Wolfsburg. Ricardo Clark left MLS for Eintracht Frankfurt six months before the 2010 World Cup and earned a spot on the plane to South Africa, but he returned to the Houston Dynamo last year.
Stuart Holden (Houston to Bolton Wanderers), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard Liège to AC Milan) and Charlie Davies (Hammarby to Sochaux) had injury misfortune and the likes of Chris Rolfe, Freddy Adu and Kenny Cooper, among others, didn't blossom in time to warrant World Cup consideration.
"I think it's by chance it's worked out that way," McBride told SI.com. "There rarely is a case where players are afraid to make a move. ... For the most part you're always aware that things could go wrong, but you have to have enough confidence in yourself to say, 'I know what lies ahead of me, I know what hard work I have to put in and I trust myself.'"
McBride, who tallied 41 goals in five seasons at Fulham, said Altidore will have to adjust "to the lack of much time on the ball," in England, where by and large the game is a little less technical and a bit more robust than in the Eredivisie. Coach Paolo di Canio's Sunderland side won't be looking to possess the ball and build through the midfield like Verbeek's AZ, meaning the rhythm and regularity of Altidore's service will change. He'll have to adapt.
"Technically, Jozy's always had it. For me, one of the biggest things is he started doing more work off the ball," McBride said. "He's shown that he's ready, made huge strides with his club game and also you can see from this summer that's transferred that now to the international game."
While international soccer generates more buzz in the U.S. because of the club game's shallow roots, it's not the end-all for players. A World Cup is great -- but it only comes around every four years and it doesn't pay the bills. Being cautious because Brazil is around the corner would be a mistake, Keller argued.
"I knew I was putting my starting position for 2002 in jeopardy by going to Tottenham," he said. "But a World Cup isn't a career. First and foremost, most players think, 'Let me get my club career right and World Cups will come after that.' ... It goes back to the confidence thing."
Last year, after joining the Seattle Sounders, former Fulham forward Eddie Johnson reflected on his struggles at Craven Cottage. "You have a bad three games, the team doesn't get three results, and you're out," he said. "The managers are under so much pressure over there."
Altidore, Di Canio and the Sunderland faithful will have to manage those expectations while U.S. supporters stay focused on the bigger picture. The transfer makes sense for Altidore's career trajectory and bank account. It also should make sense for the World Cup effort, Keller argued, even though Altidore likely will score far fewer than 31 goals this season.
"I want a guy who's confident but I want a guy who's playing against the best players," Keller said. "I'd rather have him score 10, 12 goals in the Premier League. That's bigger for me than scoring 25 in Holland."