By IVES GALARCEP
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?
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