- Posted: 3:21 PM, October 11, 2011
From a franchise quarterback to an ace starting pitcher, there are few commodities more valued _ or rare _ in sports than a top-class striker. U.S. Soccer fans have hoped and prayed Jozy Altidore would become one; and for the first time in years, the young New Jersey product is showing signs of growing into just that.
After a teenage Altidore left the Red Bulls for Villarreal and la Liga, he bounced from unsuccessful loan to unsuccessful loan, rust eroding his form. But now _ since finding playing time and a resurgence with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar _ the 21-year-old returns with the U.S. National Team tonight vs. Ecuador for his first-ever game at Red Bull Arena, and enjoying the best soccer of his life.
“I’m extremely pleased he found a team that gives him rhythm of the game, that believes in him,’’ said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “It’s a big plus that Earnie Stewart the technical director is one of our guys. The most important thing for all the players is that they’re in rhythm, play week-in, week-out. You can see already in Jozy’s development over the last two months there’s really a big difference.
“Obviously it helped him scoring a couple of goals confidence-wise. The way he played on Saturday night was completely different than four weeks ago in L.A. and in the game in Belgium….He worked hard on himself, and all he needs _ all the players _ is game rhythm…Improved fitness level of Jozy, you could all see that his work rate was dynamic. He was sharp, greedy for scoring a goal.’’
Altidore has been hungry for goals. He’s started three of Klinsmann’s four games as U.S. coach, and even though his two international scores this year came under ex-coach Bob Bradley, Altidore was impressive in Saturday’s 1-0 win over Honduras. He’s tallied seven times _ four in the Europa League _ just 12 games into his debut season with AZ Alkmaar, a move he credits with his improved form.
“It’s been huge. It’s important for any player, because that’s when you’re at your sharpest, when you’re playing all the time. Always being in gamelike situations is important; for me it’s no different. I’m really glad I get to do that,’’ said Altidore, who was born in Livingston, NJ.
“Playing, that’s the biggest thing, and I’m getting that there. And not only that, but playing at a pretty good level against good teams. You’ve got the Europa League as well, playing against good competition. So for me, it’s important. I feel more confident on the pitch now, I feel fitter, I feel stronger. I think that all accounts to the playing time I’m getting.’’
Altidore had transferred from the Red Bulls to Villarreal for $10 million, still a record for a U.S. player. But he was buried on the bench behind fellow New Jerseyan Giuseppe Rossi _ a Clifton product who spurned the U.S. for Italy _ and got loaned out to Xerez (where he never played a minute), Premier League side Hull City and Bursaspor in Turkey. Now consistency has helped his game.
Granted, there is little defense played in the high-scoring Eredivisie. U.S. teammate Michael Bradley, a box-to-box midfielder, erupted for 21 goals in 2007-08 with Heerenveen and has never scored more than five before or since.
But ex-U.S. midfielder Earnie Stewart is the technical director, Bradley’s ex-Heerenveen coach Gertjan Verbeek the manager, and Dutch clubs have a history of developing technical young attackers. With Kolbeinn Sigthórsson gone to Ajax, Altidore is being presented with a chance _ and like a good striker, he’s taken it, helping AZ top both the league table and tied atop Europa League Group G.
“I think he has more confidence and he has more fitness, and I think that’s showing in his game,’’ said strike partner Clint Dempsey. “The more games he plays in, the more goals he scores, he’s going to be able to just get more confidence and take it to another level; that’s what all forwards want to do.’’