One year ago, Jozy Altidore came into 2013 sitting on 11 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, halfway to a banner year that saw him finish with a career-high and all-time American player record of 31 goals in all competitions.
A year on, Altidore celebrated the new year sitting on just one Premier League goal through his first half-season at Sunderland, mired in a difficult campaign. The Black Cats sit in last place, have already fired a manager, and are struggling to produce goals or results. All the while, Altidore has been starved for service, while also showing inconsistent form as he battles for minutes.
In short, Altidore’s move to Sunderland has been a nightmare to watch at times, and some are already writing it off as a failure.
Is that a fair verdict at this point? Don’t be so sure. There is no denying that Altidore’s move hasn’t gone according to plan, but to call it a failed transfer already is jumping the gun and ignoring the benefits of the move that haven’t changed.
Altidore made the move from the Dutch League to the Premier League not only for the increased pay, but also the step up in profile and competition brought by the switch to a significantly tougher league. That change was never going to be easy, but after two years of dominating the Eredivisie to the tune of 50 goals, it was time for Altidore to take a step up in class.
What has been important through the first half-season is the fact that Altidore has seen a good amount of playing time. He has had the chance to face the Premier League’s tough defenses, and some of the world’s best defenders. It hasn’t always been pretty to watch, but it is a process that is definitely giving Altidore valuable experience, along with forcing him to improve.
It has made things more challenging for Altidore, but that adversity shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a bad thing in Altidore’s development. He is being reminded of the importance of finishing chances when they come, especially on a team that creates few. He is also having to work that much harder, not only to keep earning minutes, but to deal with defenses that often are deployed to smother him as Sunderland’s ineffective midfield struggles to find its way.
Circumstances at Sunderland have also made things more difficult for Altidore. Starting with Paolo DiCanio’s early-season meltdown and departure as manager. The arrival of new manager Gus Poyet appears to be helping the team find a better level of play, but the club is still in serious danger of being relegated.
Altidore isn’t totally blameless in his and his team’s disappointing first half. He too has shown poor form at times, and made mistakes, and missed chances, but he has also shown fight, a willingness to work hard and a good passing eye even if his teammates don’t always capitalize.
Altidore’s struggles have been especially scary for U.S. fans because of Altidore’s increased importance in the U.S. national team attack. He carried the offense through last summer’s World Cup qualifiers, and the fear is that a lack of goals and frustrating time at Sunderland will hurt his national team form at this summer’s World Cup.
That’s a fair concern, but the reality is Altidore is a much better, and much more mature player than he was four years ago heading into the 2010 World Cup. Back then, he was coming off an even worse situation after a loan to an awful Hull City team. He didn’t score a goal at the 2010 World Cup, but he made things difficult for opposing defenses, drawing free kicks and cards, and helping set up some very important goals.
This time around, as he once again heads toward a World Cup dealing with a struggling team, Altidore is more experienced and more confident in his own ability. He has already been through plenty of roller coaster-like swings in his career, and he knows that the only way to get through tough times is to keep working hard and staying sharp.
Something else the “This failed transfer could wind up hurting the U.S. national team” theorists should consider is the fact that Altidore’s departure from AZ helped open the door for Aron Johannsson to become a regular starter. Now Johannsson is scoring goals in bunches and improving at such a rapid rate that he just might challenge for a starting place on the U.S. team this summer.
If Altidore had stayed at AZ, not only would he be stagnating at the same level he’s dominated for two years, he could also have potentially blocked Johannsson's progress at AZ. Now, Johannssson is blossoming while Altidore is being tested by the rigors of the English Premier League.
Whether Altidore's move can be judged as a success or failure remains to be seen, and even the disappointing first half of the Premier League season isn't enough to pass judgment just yet. The final verdict on whether Altidore’s move to Sunderland was a success or failure still lies in Altidore’s hands. He has to keep pushing hard for a starting role, has to finish chances when they come, and has to try and find a more consistent level of play amid the inconsistency of his Sunderland team.
Nobody is expecting him to duplicate his AZ scoring totals, but he needs to score more in order to not only help his confidence, but relieve some of the pressure that comes with being a $13 million dollar acquisition. Altidore can still make the move to Sunderland look like a hit, but he will need to step it up in 2014 to make that happen.
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