Jozy Altidore’s recent transfer to Sunderland has excited many US soccer fans, not to mention the executives at NBC Sports; nevertheless, there is ample reason to take a more measured approach in defining our expectations of the 23-year-old. Yes, he scored 31 goals in the last campaign for AZ Alkmaar, as well as in four consecutive matches for the US men’s national team. And he has doubtless made significant improvements to his game during two years under manager Gertjan Verbeek. However, let’s not be so quick to forget that before his move to Holland, he scored a grand total of three league goals during three seasons in Europe and went a week short of two years without scoring in a competitive match for the USMNT.
Now, obviously the argument can be made that Altidore was only nineteen when he left the Red Bulls for Villarreal, and was subsequently loaned out to clubs that had no real stake in his development. Likewise, his struggles for the national team could be attributed to Jurgen Klinsmann’s lack of belief in him and the fact that the team as a whole was in pretty indifferent form. All these points are completely legitimate, but just as Altidore was not all of a sudden useless because he had a rough patch in his career, he is not automatically “one of the top strikers in Europe” as Sunderland boss Paolo Di Canio recently described the American.
Managing expectations is not something soccer fans do particularly well, and US fans are particularly prone to error in this area, not necessarily because of ignorance, but because of their desire to see US players succeed abroad. Whether it’s expecting a ‘14-year-old’ Freddy Adu to be the next Pele, or Clint Dempsey to join a Champions League club for £20 million at 29-years-old after a good year at Fulham, or even Alexi Lalas’ infamous declaration that MLS is “on par” with the Premier League, it can be hard for some to take off their red, white, and blue tinted sunglasses.
Jeff Carlisle’s recent article for ESPN claims that the reported fee of £6 million Sunderland paid for Altidore, which could rise through various incentives, was “sobering to a degree.” This would be a fair point if Altidore had netted his 51 goals in 93 appearances in all competitions in, for example, Germany. Altidore’s strike rate of 0.55 goals per match compares favorably to Robert Lewandowski’s 0.43 during his first two years as Borussia Dortmund, when he was less than three months older than Altidore.
The problem is that the Eredivise, though a compelling technical league, is not always the best indicator of a striker’s potential. For every Van Nistelrooy, Romario, Ronaldo, even Suarez to come out of the Netherlands, there are the likes of Alfonso Alves, Mateja Kezman, Bjorn Vleminckx, and Mounir El Hamdaoui who have been unable to replicate their free scoring form outside of Holland. There is a reason newer fans of the game may not have heard of some of these players.