022413_isi_altidorejozy_usmnt090509317 John Todd/isiphotos.com
The Striker

Altidore's Ascent: Getting Within Striking Distance

Will Jozy Altidore ever reach his true potential? Why is he so wonderful for AZ Alkmaar and so disappointing for the U.S.? Is it his fault? Somebody else's? Will Parchman addresses all of these questions.

BY Will Parchman Posted
February 25, 2013
10:00 AM
JURGEN KLINSMANN DELIVERED THE SOUNDBITE evenly, as though he were spreading butter over toast.

There was no hint of bitterness, but it came across dripping with that sing-song German lilt that rises and falls over words, trips over W's, elongates O's, shortens the most difficult phrasings for brevity. He blinked a few times, never grimaced, and moved on quickly afterward.

But there was a sledgehammer in it, too, craftily hidden between the rounded vowels and behind the angled consonants. It was last October, shortly after Klinsmann pulled up the curtain on his roster for the Antigua & Barbuba and Guatemala qualifiers. He was talking about Jozy Altidore. And while Klinsmann’s outward appearance didn't betray his mood, his sharp words did the job.

“I communicated to Jozy I was not happy about his latest performances with us, maybe even over the last 14 months," the coach said. "I think Jozy can do much, much better. The reason he’s not coming in is mainly because of his performances in Jamaica and at home, also in training, and also certain things that went on through the May-June camp. We decided to bring in Eddie Johnson and Alan Gordon and give them a chance to show how much they have improved. They’re both doing very well in MLS right now.”

They're both doing very well in MLS right now.

I could just see the words sprouting feathers, developing an arrowhead, and falling with speed on Altidore at the AZ training complex. Well, what the hell am I doing right now? he must have thought. If not now, when?

Altidore, who had played in 17 straight World Cup qualifiers to that point, was not going to play an 18th. Klinsmann left him off. Not off the starting XI. Off the entire 24-man roster.

The whole conflagration, which was deemed by many to be Klinsmann's most puzzling personnel decision as the head of the U.S. soccer team, just screamed Jozy Altidore. The whole thing. If Jozy had an Urban Dictionary reference page, this was all ripped straight from it: oblique mentions of his training habits, a nod to the importance of club form (!), and then a dig at his continuing lack of production for the U.S.

For the record: at the time of Klinsmann's statement, Altidore had scored eight goals for AZ Alkmaar, which tied him for the league lead. Now he has 16 in the Eredivisie in just 22 appearances. You get the sense that Klinsmann received the message. Jozy was on the field for the Russia friendly in November. You have to search sideways for rebuttals from Altidore himself that dig at the heart of it. Those complaints are as old as his career, and there isn't much more he can say other than, “It's not like I want to be this guy that can have great games and then inexplicably disappear.”

It's not enough. You want to know why.

You want to know why that goal against Guadeloupe can happen almost monthly in the Netherlands and then, you know, only once, against Guadeloupe in the red stripes. You want to know why he never seems settled at pace, like he's running toward the corner flags to dump it off more quickly. Why he can't seem to stay tethered up top, always flitting around the edges, occasionally taking himself out of scoring positions in which most No. 9's build summer homes. And, most importantly, you wonder if all the scar tissue in Altidore's game generated by this fluctuating press has calcified and ruined him forever. Jozy Altidore is 23. And we wonder all this.

The snippet below from Jozy, related to Grant Wahl back in October, is as enlightening a quote as I've ever read from him. He says this shortly after enumerating the tactical differences between Klinsmann and Gertjan Verbeek, AZ's mercurial head man. Namely that the U.S. does not employ true wingers, does not have a true No. 10 and has not made any kind of continuing commitment to the 4-3-3 he plays in Europe.

"At the beginning I was a guy who loved to get the ball and run at people, but there was no real tactical area in my game. It was just get on the field and make things happen. Now it's a bit different. There's a way [Verbeek] wants me to play, and from there you try to bring your qualities. I'm playing more with my back to goal now, hold the ball up, and get other people into the game. I'm just maturing as a player in that regard."

Get on the field and make things happen. He succinctly summed up in eight words what, for years, many could not do in thousands.

There is a sinister side to Jozy's game that I can't shake. When was the last time you watched him for 90 minutes and thought he truly looked dangerous? His Trinidad & Tobago hat trick in 2009? His performance against Spain that same year? Maybe in spurts in the World Cup? I can clamber over the fence and join Klinsmann's side for a moment here. It feels good, feels right, to believe that somewhere inside Jozy's bulky frame is a breakout star ready to unleash hell on a consistent basis for the United States. He has the body to hold it up, the skill to take you on, and the athleticism to fly past you. And yet he so rarely does any of this consistently on the national level.

Mind you, Club Jozy has few of these problems, but then there has never really been a correlation between Club Jozy and USMNT Jozy. They've always been two very distinct men. And it was at the confluence of the traditional Club Jozy and the AZ Club Jozy that Klinsmann found himself last October. And he went with the past Club Jozy as his straw man.

This, right here, is where Jurgen and I diverge. Indeed, the junction where I think Old and developing New Jozy meet. To my eyes–and to the eyes of my friend and colleague Greg Seltzer, who lives and writes about soccer in Amsterdam–Jozy has grown more as a No. 9 in the past year than he has over any similar time period in his career. To better enumerate this fact, I want to dig into the tactical nuances pervading his game that weren't there before. Why he's better, why he's different, why he needs time with the U.S. soccer team starting XI now more than ever. First, consider the U.S.'s 1-0 win over Italy last February. The game was a perfect example of nearly all of Jozy's faults, a direct link to his Urban Dictionary page. He simply wasn't present enough as a striker. In the 20th minute, Jozy dropped back in the early architecture of the build-up and fed Michael Bradley, who was diving toward the touchline on the right side. Bradley, looking up, saw two players in the box: Clint Dempsey short and Brek Shea long. Jozy, having fallen back to facilitate, was nowhere to be seen. The play fizzles.

About five minutes later, Dempsey led a promising break and fed Jozy, who was calmly bumped off possession near the edge of the box to kill it, something that shouldn't necessarily be happening when you've got the frame to hold it up.

Illustrative moments, these, but not wholly comprehensive. The troublesome thing about analyzing Jozy is that he picks his moments carefully. He won't look great on every touch, or even most of them, but every now and then he'll rip off the shirt to reveal a Superman "S," and you're left wondering why it wasn't there all along. But that's just it with Jozy. Until he becomes more dominant, this is the guy we'll go to war with, so it's better to understand his makeup than belittle him for something he's not and has never been.

By April of 2012, Jozy was beginning to look truly deadly for AZ. In Verbeek's 4-3-3, he was flanked by the quick-dribbling Roy Beerens and winger Brett Holman, who now plays in the Premier League. Between these two players nailing down the wings and the young, uber-talented Adam Maher providing service from the midfield, Jozy finally started growing into a comfort zone he was never given the opportunity to find at the national level. The U.S. has no true wingers to keep Jozy from coming unglued and drifting to the sides like an unhinged pendulum. It has no true creative attacking midfielder to keep Jozy from drifting back to try and create himself. As a young player who got an unhealthy amount of his minutes on the national team as opposed to in club leagues during his earliest developmental years, this was, in a sense, a large chunk of what he knew. And what he knew to do was a little bit of everything. And, by extension, nothing particularly well.

Get on the field and make things happen. I'd like to explain Jozy's early years with the national team, years he also spent largely adrift on the club scene, through an analogy. Roughly from the ages of 8-13, I'd spend time each summer at Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in Hilton Head, South Carolina. It is world renowned as a molder of some of the best tennis talent around, and for very good reason (probably because I criminally underachieved), I was typically in lower to mid-level classes. This meant that I was typically the best player in the class, and sometimes it wasn't close. I say this not to flaunt my own talent but as part of my point. This not only wildly inflated my ego, but it caused me to attempt to alter my own game out of my own boredom and inflated sense of worth as a tennis player. Pete Sampras being my favorite athlete, I developed this bizarre chicken wing forehand that was so technically unsound that it took me years to iron it out of my game. All essentially because I was bored, because I had no technical background to support it, because I wasn't playing every day at my local club.

Things are changing. The Jozy of the Italy match is no longer wheeling out of the box during dangerous movements; instead he is pounding into the six and looking for goals.

His hat trick in a 4-1 win over Vitesse in January is a prime example. His attacking shape, his ability to play back-to-the-net soccer and peel back defenders like banana peels—it was there. The Jozy we all see on the backs of our eyelids—he was there. His second goal was composed and calm, as was his third goal, where he chested a pass down and finished hard and sure. These are strikers’ goals. These are goals you’d expected from finishers. Like we all want Jozy to be. And this is not even accounting for his unreal emotional maturity, which stepped to the fore when he recently responded to racist hecklers with an understated grace.

The only real drawback here is that, unlike his idealistic romp in Alkmaar, the U.S. men's national team is no closer to finding a pair of true wingers—Shea is one, maybe—no closer to pinpointing a real No. 10 who can keep Jozy from wandering back. But the key is that from here on out, it might not matter nearly as much. Jozy’s seen what he can do with these implements in place. He has this basic restraint now programmed into his mainframe. Will he ever really abandon his propensity to occasionally fade out of dangerous positions at will? Perhaps not. But I think he now knows how to subdue the impulse.

Much of the talk about Jozy as we march toward Brazil 2014 will revolve around whether he "gets it." Has he figured it out yet? Has it clicked? For one of the most puzzling young American players of our time, it's not a question I can answer satisfactorily.

But I can say this with confidence now. I think he’s closer than ever.

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