U.S. Men's National Team

Monday Morning Centerback: On Altidore, his AZ hot streak and misguided criticism of his form for the USMNT

JozyAltidoreAZ (Reuters)



If you took a look at the leading scorers in Europe's top leagues right now, the list would include many of the most prolific scorers in the world. Lionel Messi leads La Liga with six. Robin Van Persie has four for Manchester United, tied for the most in the English Premier League. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as expected, leads Ligue 1 with five goals in the early season for Paris St. Germain.

None of those stars has scored more goals in league play so far this season than Jozy Altidore. The U.S. Men's national team striker has scored a whopping seven goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, taking his tally to seven after a thoroughly impressive hat trick (and assist) in AZ's 4-0 rout of Roda JK on Sunday.

Altidore's three-goal outburst showed off all his best qualities. His strength, deceptive speed and ever-improving passing. It was enough to draw plenty of excitement from American soccer fans on Sunday morning, but it also drew a fair share of consternation from a more cynical corner of the U.S. soccer fanbase which seemed to recite one complaint in unison.

"Why can't he do that for the national team?"

It is a fair question if all you do is look at the raw stats, which show that Altidore has yet to score a goal for the national team in 2012, and has managed just one goal for the U.S. in the past 14 months. It is not a difficult question to answer, though, if you have actually spent any time watching Altidore play for AZ, and if you have watched him toil away on in a U.S. national team attack that just isn't as good at creating chances as his club team is.

No, AZ isn't exactly a perennial goal-scoring machine. In fact, the club was only sixth in the Dutch League in goals last season. What AZ does is send numbers forward, attacking with a variety of midfield options. You know how the U.S. national team has been fielding an inordinate amount of defensive midfielders and struggling to generate chances accordingly? AZ is pretty much the opposite, trotting out a dangerous collection of midfield creators and speedsters who keep Altidore engaged and connected to a consistent attack.

Imagine being a forward for a high-octane offense, one that sets you up with chances and one made up of dynamic threats who combine well and make life difficult for opposing defenses. Now imagining leaving that behind every few months to join a national team sorely lacking creative midfield options, a team that regular leaves you starving for service.

Think about. Is Altidore missing chances for the national team? Is he squandering service and misfiring? No, he isn't even getting the chance to misfire. Instead, he often finds himself floating deep, begging for teammates to combine with, be it from the flanks or the middle of the park.

It really is that simple. Any notion that Altidore simply doesn't step his game up for the national team, or somehow isn't a good fit for the U.S. is just plain silly. It's like blaming someone for not being able to drive a tractor the same way they drive a sports car.

Some will point to Clint Dempsey, and in more recent months Herculez Gomez, for examples of players who are still producing goals despite the recent funk endured by the U.S. attack. Dempsey's form over the past year has been the best of his career, and trying to measure anyone by that standard simply isn't fair, and the reality is that it isn't as if Dempsey is finding tons of chances either. He's just burying every single chance that falls his way.

Gomez is doing well to contribute despite a lack of service, but he isn't lighting up the scoreboard at the same rate Dempsey is. He is fighting and scraping for any shred of a chance or half chance, and has done an excellent job of becoming the ultimate scavenger (Tim Howard recently compared him to retired Dutch star Ruud van Nistelrooy in that regard). As well as he has played, Gomez hasn't exactly been showered with scoring chances despite all the hard work, which is why he has managed just three USMNT goals this year, including one off a free kick. Gomez has also has not been immune from expressing recent frustrations about the U.S. attack and the lack of chances produced by it.

Much like Altidore, Gomez plays club soccer for a team that plays free-flowing attacking soccer. Santos Laguna has creators who make it fun for Gomez and strikers like Oribe Peralta to be a finisher. These days, being a U.S. national team striker is like being the squirrel in the Ice Age cartoon movies, desperately chasing a solitary acorn, many times in vain.

This all isn't to suggest that Altidore is the finished product, or a perfect player. But it is to show that criticizing him for things that simply aren't in his control, and choosing to ignore the fact that he is clearly improving and growing as a player, is a pointless exercise. Blaming someone for not having all the best traits of the other players in the pool, be it Dempsey's nose for goal or Gomez's hustle, is a pretty unfair standard to measure any player by.

What U.S. fans need to be appreciating about Altidore's form for AZ is that it clearly shows a forward improving, maturing and gaining confidence. It began last season, when Altidore scored 15 league goals and stepped his game up down the stretch as the club made a title push. This season, Altidore looks like a player fully in tune with his teammates, a player who is developing a better understanding of the forward position and how best to play in a attack that can actually function as an attack should.

To some, Altidore's big goal totals are more a product of the league he plays in than actual improvement on his part. This notion is the height of misguided cynicism. Is the Dutch League an attacking league where you're destined to see more goals than in most other leagues? Yes, but being a 15-20 goal scorer in the Dutch League is hardly an easy proposition, or more than just five players would have scored more goals than Altidore last season, and his seven goals this season wouldn't be three more than the next-highest scorer.

What it boils down to is this. Altidore is one of the best young talents American soccer has produced to date, and the fact that he is playing so well, at such a high level, should have American fans excited rather than cynical because he isn't duplicating his club exploits with the national team. Can you imagine going back 10-15 years and telling U.S. fans that a 22-year-old American was leading Europe in league goals, or even starting as a forward in the Dutch League. It would have made him a folk hero.

If and when the U.S. national team sorts out its midfield to strike a better balance between attacking and defending, and when Jurgen Klinsmann's team can start generating chances against all caliber of opponents, there is a very good bet that Altidore will be poised to take advantage of that. Whether it is the return of Landon Donovan, the emergence of Graham Zusi, the maturation of Brek Shea, or the introduction of young options like Josh Gatt and Joe Corona, something will need to change for the U.S. if the offense is ever going to get the most out of Altidore.

Until that time comes, all Altidore can do is continue to hone his skills and keep on scoring goals for AZ. After spending years toiling away on benches in Europe, Altidore is thriving and is sure to start drawing interest from bigger clubs. Still only 22, Altidore's future is as bright as any player on the U.S. national team and while he hasn't been finding the net for the U.S. lately, there is no reason to think the goals won't come eventually.

Before the goals come though, chances will have to come, so rather than responding to Altidore's next goal-scoring outburst with laments about his national team form, you might want to watch AZ play and ask yourself a better question than "Why can't he do that for the national team?"

The question you should ask is when will the U.S. national team have a midfield that can attack and create that way?

JozyAltidoreUSMNTHand (ISIPhotos.com)

Photo by ISIPhotos.com

  • GW

    You are trying to make a case that Herc is more useful to the US because he has a better goals per game stat? Okay but the goals per game stat is useful only to a point.

    It works much better to evaluate club performance. Why?

    That nagging little thing called friendlies.

    Three out of Herc’s five goals came in friendlies; that is 60%

    Four out of Jozy’s thirteen goals came in friendlies; that is about 31%

    By this measurement, Jozy is better when it matters (WC Qualifying, Gold Cup, Confed Cup ).

    Why you worry about finding ways to rate Herc as better than Jozy strikes me as a waste of time.

    They should play together. Gomez is a great compliment to Jozy.

    I wonder if anyone here saw Jozy play in the World Cup, where even though he did not score, he led the line wonderfully and took, along with Clint, a fantastic beating up front all four games. Jozy, Clint and Donovan were all integral parts of that immortal Algeria goal and they remain the US’ best proven attacking players.


  • beachbum

    he was a tank at the WC when teams fouled the USMNT hard and often and particularly Jozy, and he would have been credited with winning the free kick victory goal by Edu vs. Slovenia if not for the ref shenanigans on that play, and remember Algeria at the death?


  • GW

    I don’t know if FIFA has global rankings for leagues but Ggoogle “UEFA coefficient” for the European league rankings.


  • beachbum

    “Nor can you judge by watching his club play in a horrible defending league, that he is improving. Only by his USMNT can we tell if he is improving.”

    Disagree, particularly considering the teams and tactics the USMNT has been deploying, and the absolutism of your claim is comedy


  • PD

    just shut up. it’s like criticizing a wide receiver for not catching every pass that comes their way or a slugger not making contact with every pitch that goes over the play.

    unrealistic and unreasonable.


  • beachbum

    “Jozy is always going to be the same player”

    you claim to be a 45 year connoisseur of the beautiful game then make a claim like that re. a 22 year old?

    sometimes experience brings insight and wisdom, sometimes not


  • GW

    A & O,

    Since MB90 left Holland he has not been deployed the same way Heerenveen deployed him. He remains just about our best option in terms of trailing the play and coming in late to score (something he did a lot in Holland) but it does not happen anywhere near as often as it used to in Holland for Mikey.

    So I’m not sure comparing him and Jozy makes a lot of sense.

    As for the “gap”, it is always difficult to compare leagues, especially leagues whose teams never play each other in competitive games when both sides are in mid-season form. The Champions league and the Europa league are good for that but MLS plays in such vastly different circumstances that it is hard to get a really accurate read on comparative strength.

    Roger Espinoza for example, while he is a Honduran international ( though he is an American citizen), moved to Denver at the age of 12 and then played at Ohio State and became a generation Adidas player. His “ soccer path” was as about as “American” and “MLS” as a player can get. And now he is apparently being courted by Wigan. And he is not the only one. So of course MLS developed players are getting better all the time.

    Obviously, there is no question that many MLS players are capable of doing very well in Europe. In my view it is mostly a question of finding a club where they fit in well.


  • Sabella

    A well written article and spot on. To me, fairly obvious. It’s been hard to understand the criticism.


  • Leo

    I’m not disputing the past statistics as you’ve presented them; my point is more “hold off on extrapolating future results based on past performance” due to the fact that 1) the Eredivisie is a great place to learn offensive fundamentals (his hold up play, touch and mid range shooting have improved greatly over the past year) and 2) He played nearly as much last year as he had the three previous seasons combined.

    Do I know what Jozy will do in the future? No one does. I think an honest person would say that his progress is more promising now than at any other point in his career. Hopefully in four years that will yield dividends for the Nats.


  • Joamiq

    Don’t understand this comment at all. Jozy already has done this for an actual full season – last season. And Andrew Bynum has already improved – he is by general consensus the second best center in the league right now. That’s not to say that he or Jozy are finished products, but both are already good.


  • Dennis

    I guess you would have said Wondo was never going to be much of a player when he was 25? Despite what a lot of fans think, most players work hard to improve and generally they do. Of course physical talents can limit that improvement and injuries can provide setback after setback and erode physical gifts. If Wondo could go from being at best a middle of the pack player for Houston to the guy leading the league over the last 3 seasons in goals scored, Altidore who is clearly more physically gifted, can improve as well. (Not to bash Wondo’s athleticism, he ran a 4:15 mile in HS and was starting 2nd baseman for a PONY league World Series Championship team.)


  • GW

    Ask Eric Lichaj what he thinks of Heskey.

    You don’t stay around as long as Heskey has if you don’t have something.


  • if you're basing it on Jamaica

    Yeah well all you established with that nugget of information is that you’ve been a piss poor observer of soccer for over 30 years…


  • Nate Dollars

    couldn’t have said it better myself…i saw the headline and was expecting half the column to be about coffee and fantasy baseball. this was great.


  • T-moble

    I find the US soccer fans to lack soccer knowledge, and if you’re basing it on Jamaica you are one of them


  • The Imperative Voice

    He’s gracious about most everyone, even Chandler.

    He just simply doesn’t call in the ones he cares for less, and doesn’t play as much the ones he doesn’t think are as good as his starters.

    Since he’s nice and polite I judge him by his actions. His actions are fewer and fewer starts for Jozy.

    If you read my posts overall you’d see that I think he deserves a spot in the 18/23 just not to start. I think he’s the 3rd or 4th best US option and AZ doesn’t change that.


  • kevin

    All u say T-Mobile is the Dutch league is a horrible defending league, but its not like hes NOT scoring goals, what do u want him to do? not score goals and make the league better at defensive bc he’s not scoring? hes still scoring and at a fantastic rate


  • The Imperative Voice

    To which I’d respond, Jozy did quite well playing on the wing sometimes for NYRB. People who’ve played the wing could tell you there’s often more space there to trap and operate. There is an argument to be made that he is not so much growing as finding a more suitable niche in Holland.

    In comparison, I’m looking at the Boyd kid who can already do bikes and backheel assists in games and such, and has a pretty big body too.

    I think we already have some talented people in camp and therefore I think the onus is on Jozy to show why he is relevant while with the USA. I think playing for AZ is a better environment to shine than sitting for Hull or Villareal, but to me there is a fool me twice risk to buying he’s turned the corner and not just found a suitable home.

    Last, I’m amused people are saying he needs to move to a new team based on this production. Shouldn’t he stay where he finally produces?


  • The Imperative Voice

    Heskey is not entirely awful but there are gradations in terms of the value of target players.

    Mr. Em is criticized in England for some of the same skill limitations Jozy is.


  • The Imperative Voice

    I’d like to see him (a) play stronger and (b) get a little nasty. Can someone show him tape of Shaq throwing his body around? He bodies people around less than guys I played in college.


  • DC Josh

    Ever since Jozy transferred to Hull, his game began to improve. Several years later, he is in incredible form… at 22 years old. He still has much to improve, and will do so. His potential is sky high. He could become a world class striker.

    At worst, he will be our best striker since McBride. At best, he could become the next Drogba.


  • Ashley Watson

    Until USMNT learn to cure their addiction to excessive reliance on defensive midfield play and move to a more balanced midfield that actually give healthy service on CONSISTENT basis, we can’t criticize the strikers like that. If USMNT have the right type of midfield formation to provide the consistent service and any striker can’t produce results after few games of respectable service, then by all means, we can pull our guns out and criticize the hell of those strikers.


  • GW

    If Heskey were an American he would have been a star and he might still be starting, if JK wanted a classic target man.

    As with Jozy the criticism of Heskey was way overblown as is the comparison.

    The biggest similarity between the two is they are both black and ferociously criticized.

    Jozy is a better scorer. Heskey is/was far more skilled at being a target man.


  • GW

    Watch the 2010 World Cup if you want to see Jozy play “ physical”. Or maybe I should say watch the beating that he and Dempsey take.
    Jozy may be big compared to everyone’s idea of what a soccer player is supposed to be but it’s not as if he is as strong and athletic as tight ends like Gronkowski or Heath Miller.

    If you think the guys in Europe and the World Cup are intimidated by big guys trying to throw their weight around you are in for a disappointment.

    You really ought to look at some of the guys he played against in the World Cup and in Europe. It’s not as if everyone he plays against is easily impressed by size and strength. Certainly not the guys from Ghana.


  • GW

    The US back four is porous, leaky, shaky.

    Cameron’s recent emergence is good but he is still raw. The backfield remains slow, and the level of teamwork leaves much to be desired.

    As long as that remains true the US midfield will have to be unbalanced to compensate.

    Which of course means the US attack will be compromised.

    The US misses Donovan not just for his attacking skills but because he links up with the defense so well. Assuming he comes back fulltime (and of course MB90) things will get better.

    But the team needs either a better Boca or a new one.


  • Dawwilly

    I would agree that the Sacha from 2 years ago had issues, but this guy just went 90 minutes in the Champions League against AC Milan. AC Milan is not the team it was last year or before, but the top flight of European soccer is still the top flight. As for your comparison with international and club level, the latter is clearly faster and better. International soccer with the exception of Spain has not evolved in quality or skill. Brazil is evidence of that – tons of talent and can’t get it done when it counts. Altidore plays fantastically off the ball. Watch is club games. The US has zero offensive organization or an established philosophy. This has been true for the last 10 years. It is why watching some U.S. games is such a painful experience, because the one off individual heroics aside and the defensive grit there are only few examples of sustained, quality offensive play and flow. The confederations cup under Bradley is the last evidence of that. The Mexico win was on grit and great goal keeping, which is something the U.S. has been fortunate to have an abundance of. Until U.S. soccer learns to teach the game of having its midfielders and defensive players comfortable with the ball at your feet, guys like Altidore will never be appreciated. You clowns that call him lazy probably can’t run a mile in under 8 minutes.


  • Dawwilly

    That’s all you saw. You not really watching with detail you suggest. The U.S. was awful against Jamaica, and the fielded a terrible lineup. You can’t put three defensive mids in the center of the park and expect to have a fluid attack. Jones and Edu don’t work well together as deep lying mids. That has been shown at least a half dozen times. Both are not good distributors of ball and are prone to poor passes. So if two key facilitators can’t link the defense to the offense, what does it matter if Jozy is doing hand stands, somersaults, or chasing the goal keeper, as if the man stole is wallet. Jozy’s assist in the last AZ game is evidence of his ability to make a nice first touch, move with out the ball, read the defense, and work with his competent passing teammates on creating a scoring chance. That was nice soccer to watch. The U.S. versus Jamaica in Jamaica was bleach in eyes.


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