While Clint Dempsey was burying goal after goal after goal in English Premier League contests airing on ESPN/ESPN2 and FOX Soccer during the 2011-12 campaign, Jozy Altidore was merely enjoying a season that ultimately saw him find the back of the net 19 total times for AZ Alkmaar. Unless you're a diehard fan of the sport, you probably missed the majority of Altidore's brilliant season due to Eredivisie league matches not airing in the United States. Truth be told, American soccer fans are really only concerned about one thing regarding Altidore as the end of May approaches: Will his impressive season lead to him scoring goals for U.S. Soccer in upcoming World Cup qualifiers?
I had an opportunity to chat with Altidore before Champions League Final Saturday. During that 20-minute talk, we discussed his impressive season, Team USA's upcoming fixtures, and the feelings he has for his former Major League Soccer club. While there are certainly no guarantees regarding his play this summer as of the posting of this piece, I can assure you that Altidore lacks neither motivation nor confidence as he prepares to join U.S. Soccer at the end of May.
One thing analysts routinely brought up throughout the winter was how much Altidore has improved in attacking third when off the ball. Such improvement, according to Altidore, came mainly as a result of both film sessions and repetition. "We do a lot of video work here, analyzing everything, and that's always the best way to do it because you can see yourself," Altidore explained. "Also, just being in game experiences, because I now recognize when it's the right time to get into a good position, and you can kind of sense and get a sniff of where the ball might go. You can only get that from experience and from playing in games. Luckily for me I've gotten a little exposure to that (due to) playing at a high level this year. I'm not saying I'm perfect at it, but I've definitely improved at trying to be in the right spot for where the ball might pop out or where a cross may enter the box."
Altidore was involved in a scary incident back on May 2, one that resulted in many conflicting reports regarding his status. "I got pushed into the cement wall (the ad boards), basically, and...it was very painful. I was lucky, I am very lucky in the sense that I had no major injury," Altidore said. "(My back) still kind of gives me pain now, but it's nothing in terms of what it could have been. I feel 100 percent fine now almost." Altidore did tell me that he was never officially diagnosed with a concussion following that incident.
American soccer fans are selfish by nature, and thus we want to see "our players" in as many matches as possible. Altidore has, even before the end of the 2011-12 season, been linked with potential moves to Serie A and Premier League, two leagues that get plenty of TV time here in the United States. "To be perfectly honest with you, I love where I'm at right now," Altidore told me. "But at the same time, football is all about opportunity, and you only have so long to make something of it. In that regard, you always have to think about what jump you can make next as long as it's the right situation. You basically just have to wait and see what happens."
The conversation then moved on to U.S. Soccer. Altidore had, as of Friday, not yet officially been called up to the roster by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Altidore explained to me that he first had to complete training obligations with his club before returning to the U.S. We learned on Sunday that Altidore will join U.S. Soccer in Florida on May 28.
Altidore also spoke briefly on Timmy Chandler, who recently turned down an opportunity to play for the USMNT this summer. "It's disappointing," Altidore said, "because Timmy's a great guy. He's also a very good player. He helps the team a lot. It's disappointing because we don't get to see him. It's a loss on a personal level and on the field. At the end, though, you have to respect each individual's decision...I'm not in Timmy's head, I don't know what he's thinking, but all I know is that he's a great guy and a great player to have around."
Altidore then named Jamaica, who play the U.S. at Columbus Crew Stadium on September 11, as a team that could give the U.S. some problems. "(Jamaica) are one of the teams that are up and coming," he told me. "They are getting stronger and stronger every cycle. When they put it all together, they are going to be a scary team...I think Jamaica is going to be a team during this cycle that is going to be more dangerous than in the past."
When asked about Klinsmann, Altidore first went out of his way to praise former U.S. Soccer coach Bob Bradley. Bradley was dismissed as USMNT coach last July. "I don't think Bob (received) the kind of sendoff he deserved," Altidore said. "He did a lot of good things for the national team. He definitely brought us along. It's important whenever you have these cycles that whoever is put in charge brings (the team) along, and that you always make strides forward. I think Bob did that. As for Jurgen, it was definitely something positive. He's a guy that's played all around Europe and part of the German team. As a coach, we are still trying to know exactly what he wants from us, but I think things are going great. I think Jurgen is doing what he can to get the best out of each player."
We then briefly discussed the New York Red Bulls, Altidore's former club and a team that is currently in the middle of a five-game winning streak. "First of all, I love Red Bull. I'll always love Red Bull," Altidore told me. "Without them, I wouldn't be where I am today. I will always be forever grateful to them and their fans. I try to watch all of the big games, any game I can watch, really. I try to watch all that I can." He did admit to me that he wasn't happy with the Juan Agudelo for Heath Pearce trade, saying "Juan is a player from that area, one (RBNY) brought up. I was kind of disappointed that at such an early age they decided to give him up. These things happen, though. It's a business. I thought there would be a lot more fans against (the trade) than for it."
Lastly, Altidore spoke briefly about his foundation. "I want to reach kids," Altidore said. "Kids are our future, they are our tomorrow. Being a young guy myself, I do think that sometimes (youths) get overlooked. (The foundation) is also, of course, to give back to Haiti being that is where my background is. I really want to give back and to teach kids through soccer and in other ways, to give back to those who might need that extra lift to get to where they want to go."
It easy to forget that Altidore doesn't turn 23-years old until this coming November. After all, it seems as if he's been around for at least a decade. It's not a stretch after his past season to suggest that Altidore is just now entering the prime of his playing days. Perhaps most importantly, it takes just a few seconds into a conversation to understand his passion for improving as player, and also for doing great things both on and off the pitch. Altidore's best days being ahead of him could mean very special things for the immediate future of U.S. Soccer.
For more: JozyAltidore.com, a personal website that will also be a link for the JA Foundation, will be up and running soon, and you can follow Jozy on Twitter. Fans in Florida can also see Altidore throw out the ceremonial first pitch June 22 when the Miami Marlins host the Toronto Blue Jays at Marlins Park. Those looking to catch a glimpse of how well Altidore played during 2011-12 can watch 15 of his 19 goals via this YouTube video.