photo courtesy of Ed van de Pol
By FRANCO PANIZO
Jozy Altidore may be finding the back of the net more frequently than ever and may be playing some of the best soccer in his career, but that is not to say the recent success has come easy for the young American striker. In fact, some of the hardships Altidore experienced earlier in his career had him on the brink of what he calls his breaking point.
Altidore never reached that point and he began realizing his promising potential thanks to the people close to him keeping him hungry and grounded, but no one person may have been more influential in helping Altidore avoid a major downfall than his father.
As he has for much of his son's career, Joseph Altidore guided him through the roughest of patches of his time in Europe. He helped his son with things on and off the field and even when criticism was plentiful and sometimes overly harsh, such as when the U.S. national team striker was labeled washed up at the ages of 19 and 20. That helped keep Altidore focused on his career, and it is paying dividends for the forward now.
"He's always given me a lot of advice, not just football advice, but just in terms of life and I think that helped me get through a lot," said Altidore, who recently had a house built from scratch for his parents in Boca Raton, Fla. "He's played an important role for me in terms of just putting everything into perspective and understanding what I had to do to become what I want to become. It sounds so simple but it's not always so simple and to have people that keep enforcing these little things in your mind, it can go a long way."
That it has. Altidore enjoyed a breakout season in 2011-2012, scoring 19 times across all competitions in his first year with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar. The 22-year-old also got a steady dose of playing time for the first time since he went to Europe, and that helped his development after years of bouncing around different clubs in different countries.
If his first season with AZ was a sign of things to come, Altidore is on the verge of going on a tear in the Eredivisie. The weekly starter has opened the new campaign with four goals in the club's first four league matches, and he has demonstrated deadly finishing abilities while scoring in different ways this season.
That strong start to the season is something Altidore credits to having been able to partake in a full preseason, something that has been hard to come by in years past due international obligations and the constant state of flux that enveloped his club career.
"Playing all those training games and getting in your rhythm and you kind of peak at the right time," said Altidore of the preseason. "Still, in the beginning of the season, you're not 100 percent totally ready, but you're a lot further along than if you didn't have that preseason. It's important for anybody, for any team, that you get that rhythm of playing those practice games, get in a routine, and it shows on the field."
Altidore, who had braces in each of the first two games this season, also attributes his early-season success to feeling more acclimated to his surroundings in quaint Alkmaar.
"I'm obviously more settled, I'm obviously more at home," said Altidore. "That was always an easy thing for me this year, because there's nothing new I've got to worry about. I think that played a part: just feeling at home here, getting comfortable with the club, how everything works there, how everything runs there. I just feel at home and I think having that definitely helps in your favor when you're looking at a season."
As strongly as Altidore has begun the new campaign and as well as he is playing, the U.S. men's national team forward knows not to get too high, or too low, on his performances. He admits to feeling confident after scoring his first goal of the season in the first match, but he knows that more solid performances from him will be needed if AZ is to have another strong campaign.
"At the end of the day, you've got to be realistic and understand you've still got 30-something, hopefully 40-something, more games to go, so it's still a long road ahead," said Altidore. "But it's always good to start like this, get the monkey off your back early, get your (first) goal of the season. That's always huge so you can kind of ease yourself into the beginning of the season. But I'm really not worried about it. I'm just worried about continuing, playing well hopefully, and getting some more wins."
Altidore and AZ have failed to do that recently, and they suffered a huge and embarassing disappointment last Thursday, losing to Russian outfit Anzhi Makhachkala, 5-0, in the Europa League play-off round. The result saw AZ fall by a 6-0 aggregate score and knocked the Dutch club out of one of the premiere European competitions before it ever really got started.
That setback notwithstanding, Altidore admits he has improved tremendously after a first season with AZ that saw him play in 52 games and reach the Europa League quarterfinals.
"I just think I've become sharper," said Altidore. "I think that comes from playing all the time, playing every day. We train twice a day a lot here and playing a lot of games, the sharpness comes to you, and then just being better when the ball is not at your feet and kind of seeing plays ahead, and that also comes with playing, and I've been lucky enough to get a lot of minutes so I kind of got better at trying to read situations and being in better spaces so I can try and score more goals."
On the U.S. men's national team front, Altidore is still one of many players trying to adjust to head coach Jurgen Klinsmann's new style of play, and it does not help that he missed a chunk of this summer's World Cup qualifying camp due to AZ not wanting to release him until absolutely necessary.
Still, Altidore acknowledges that transitioning from a reactive style of play to a more proactive way is going to take more time for him and the rest of the Americans to fully adapt to, even if they have already had a full year to get used to the change.
"It's about mentality and about understanding that we're one of the teams in CONCACAF that kind of have to force the issue, force the tempo, force the play," said Altidore. "You kind of have to bang it in your head again over and over when you get to camp and remember that's the part of the game that we've got to get better at.
"But it's just going to take time. I can't say 'Oh, in a month it's going to be perfect' or something like that. I think with more repetition, as many games as possible we can get together, I think it might help us."
Altidore and the U.S. team will have a chance to show just how much progress they have made under Klinsmann this Friday when they visit Jamaica in the first of two World Cup qualifiers in the span of five days. Altidore is fit enough to spearhead the Americans' attack, and he is ready for the challenge should he be given his first start under Klinsmann since February's historic 1-0 triumph over Italy.
Having that opporuntity, however, may have never even presented itself for Altidore had it not been for his father and others close friends and relatives helping him through tough times, and for that he is thankful.
"I'm lucky because a lot of guys who have been around around across a lot of countries from a lot of nationalities, they go through Europe and they go through rough patches and they can't do it anymore," said Altidore. "I'm lucky enough to have been able to withstand the tough parts and hopefully have good parts coming ahead."