In a career that has bounced between great expectations and disappointments, Jozy Altidore talks to Eight by Eight about his return to MLS and his hopes for redemption in Toronto
Imagine walking into a European bar only to hear a group of local football fans discuss the state of the American player. What’s the worst stereotype you might overhear? That Americans are physically strong and fit but lack the technical ability to reach the top? That Americans play well as a team but don’t understand the finer points of the game like the rest of the world? That Americans can thrive only at smaller clubs or in weaker leagues?
Jozy Altidore has heard all the doubts about American players, and his time in Europe didn’t do much to prove them wrong.
See, he’s carved up the softer defenses of Dutch football, scoring 51 goals in two scintillating years at AZ Alkmaar. He’s the fifth-leading scorer ever for the United States national team—remember that hat-trick in Bosnia? Yet the ball, and the Premier League stats, don’t lie: three goals in 48 matches for Sunderland does not a successful spell make. Two goals in 30 appearances for Hull City in 2009-10 is not any better. Then there are the injury-hit years at Villareal and the time in Turkey that brings to mind the words “mixed bag.” After all the ups and downs, it’s hard to believe the guy is still just 25 years-old.
Now Altidore back in MLS with Toronto FC, after a swap deal that sent Jermain Defoe in the other direction. Altidore must hope changing scenery can change his luck. But he tells me diplomatically that he “had a great time” at Sunderland. “The fans were great and I wish them nothing but the best.”
It’s not surprising that Altidore is professional in appraising a tough 18 months: In Holland, Altidore stayed cool on the pitch despite the racist abuse that would sometimes pour down from the stands, abuse more serious and vile than any of the Twitter jokes or derisive chants he heard on Wearside. (“If Jozy scores, we’re on the pitch,” Sunderland fans used to sing, the assumption being they wouldn’t actually have to leave their seats.) Altidore isn’t the type to cause trouble with his words.
When, though, we move to possible reasons for his struggles, the mask drops a little. I ask what it’s like playing with teams like Hull and Sunderland, who often think of avoiding relegation first and creating chances second. “It’s difficult, that’s why it’s going to be hard to score at those places, because you’re up front alone most of the time and it’s not easy,” Altidore says. “So, you know, you just have to make do with what you have. It suits some players better than others.”
Altidore made a similar point last year, and Sunderland boss Gus Poyet wasn’t buying it. “I went to see him with the national team. He’s playing in a slightly different system, but in the game against Scotland he didn’t score and this week he didn’t score. It’s up to him, not me.”
So even if Altidore’s wayward finishing—one calamitous miss against Cardiff in 2013 sticks in the memory—had as much to do with his struggles as anything else, it’s hard to deny that Sunderland and Hull weren’t the easiest places to bang in twenty goals. At times, Altidore was the brass knuckles on a pacifist’s fist.
The hope is that at Toronto FC he won’t have to be a lone battering ram. He expects to help the team improve on last year’s seventh-place Eastern Conference finish. “That’s our biggest goal, to get into the playoffs, and then from there anything is possible.” In theory, there’s plenty of imported European talent to supply chances, from the livewire Italian winger Sebastian Giovinco to less-heralded acquisitions, like Polish defender Damien Perquis and ex-Marseille man Benoit Cheyrou. (Clearly, this is a different, stronger MLS than the one Altidore left in 2008.) Altidore’s friend and new club captain Michael Bradley will drive the team forward from midfield, and the pacey Robbie Findley will patrol the wings. Attacking support shouldn’t be lacking.
It’ll help Altidore if Toronto coach Greg Vanney encourages those attackers to interchange: A Dutch-style passing game suits Altidore better than English long-ball, and contrary to many assumptions, he’s more of an all-purpose forward than a bruising target man; more, say, Jonathan Walters or Danny Ings than Romelu Lukaku. One suspects that if he were a white man with a spiky haircut, fans would focus more on his insteps than his biceps.
Plus, all the club drama aside, Altidore is vital to the U.S. national team. Jurgen Klinsmann has said it’s difficult for players returning from Europe to MLS to “keep the same level.” Will Jozy’s level drop? The days of facing off with John Terry and Laurent Koscielny are over. But Altidore is ready to start scoring goals again: he says he told Klinsmann that Toronto “was always going to be a possibility.”
And the man who missed last summer’s World Cup with a hamstring injury has other words for his national team boss, even three years before the tournament: “I’m definitely thinking about Russia 2018.” Altidore will score more goals before then—and he’ll likely miss some easy chances too, or even move clubs again. But he’s focused.
That’s good news for Mr. Klinsmann. For Toronto FC and MLS fans, it’s very good news indeed.