With Jozy Altidore's transfer to Sunderland now official, the 23-year-old American striker has completed one of the craziest journeys you'll see on the European soccer scene.
Bought from MLS by La Liga side Villarreal for $10 million (U.S.) five years ago, Altidore was such a non-factor in his time at that club and several others on loan (including Hull City in the Premier League, where he scored just once as that team was relegated in 2010) that he was able to move to unfancied Dutch side AZ Alkmaar for very little in 2011. Now, after two seasons of ripping up the Eredivisie, Altidore is back in the Premiership, this time by way of a $13 million purchase.
As such, Altidore now is the subject of the two largest transfer fees ever paid for an American, with the second one happening after he was essentially considered a complete bust overseas. In concert, those two points are very important for the ongoing development of U.S. soccer.
It's important to note again that Altidore is still just 23 years old. In European soccer terms, that's quite often a fully developed player, but in American development terms, Altidore still has a good amount of growth left on the pitch. There's just that much of a massive difference between the youth training setups in the major European soccer-playing nations and here, even with the significant strides taken by MLS in the past half decade.
U.S. midfield cog Michael Bradley is authoring a similar redemption story, playing an important role for Roma following a standout season at Chievo Verona after Aston Villa barely gave him a sniff during his short time in England. Likewise, in Jaunary, Stoke City purchased U.S. winger Brek Shea, with the understanding that it would take Shea some time to develop into a Premiership-caliber contributor. Bradley will turn 26 years old at the end of this month. Shea is, like Altidore, 23.
It can't be stated strongly enough that a Premiership team paying $13 million for a young American striker is a big deal. If Altidore does capably in his second run through the league, it raises the value for all future players coming up through the various U.S. development programs. Both Altidore and Bradley are picking up where guys like Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey and (loan star) Landon Donovan first tread, getting overseas clubs to realize that there is value in American field players, not just goalkeepers.
Of course, the size of that value (or at least the accompanying cost going forward) is contingent upon Altidore playing well.
On the surface, the move to Sunderland looks like it has a lot of potential. While much of the summer transfer season has yet to play itself out, with new-ish Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio eager to continue a massive overhaul of last season's underachieving Black Cats, there's a lot to like about this situation for Altidore.
First off, he'll be playing for a manager who just authorized a very sizable fee for him. Secondly, Di Canio was an incredibly talented and classy striker himself, so Altidore has a manager with the personal experience to help him continue to develop (as long as they don't discuss politics). Also, Altidore's size and skills look to be a very good fit with fellow striker Steven Fletcher, a good threat in the air and a poacher of some renown. Altidore should immediately move ahead of other options like Danny Graham in the pecking order, and a move to a two-striker system really could benefit him. Despite his improvements in Jurgen Klinsmann's 4-2-3-1 setup, Altidore may still be better working off a partner. Fletcher is not the same type of player as Charlie Davies was pre-car wreck, but those summer months together in 2009 provided glimpses of what Altidore could do with a talented cohort when he's not isolated (and starved of service).
Whether Sunderland elects to keep skilled midfielder Stephen Sessegnon or not, or whether they use the proceeds from the sale of goalkeeper Simon Mignolet (and/or Sessegnon) to capture Juventus mid Emanuele Giacherrini, the Black Cats should have enough skill to provide Altidore (and Fletcher) with the quality of supply that should lead to goals. With goalkeeping going from a huge strong point to a major question mark, and with Di Canio at the helm, Sunderland could evolve into a much more freewheeling operation than it was under Martin O'Neill.
A lot of American soccer fans seem to be wondering why Altidore would make a move to a club like Sunderland (even though it's an ambitious club with one of the largest stadiums in England) or why he would risk things in a World Cup year when he was so comfortable at AZ Alkmaar. Beyond a considerable pay bump, it's mostly that Altidore is now ready for this level. While it would make news if he notches a brace at Old Trafford, his overall success will depend on whether he can consistently score in a league where defending is on the downslide and has a lot of teams not any better than the top Dutch sides against which Altidore did well these last two years.
There's no real reason for Altidore not to perform this season, even with an adjustment to a consistently better (and quicker) standard of play. And the U.S. needs him to be good, not just for its hopes at next summer's World Cup, but for the groundwork it will lay for the national team going forward. If Altidore can go from starlet to bust to breakout in five years, the next guy in line may get more benefit of the doubt. If the U.S. gets enough of those guys to the best clubs in the world, the World Cup door that the U.S. has knocked on in 2002 and 2010 may open wider in the future.
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