Jozy Altidore: Looking at the United States Enigmatic Forward

The US Soccer Federation announced today that 24 year old forward Jozy Altidore has been cleared to play for the United States when they take on Belgium in the Round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup. Altidore has long been considered the star striker for the USMNT and on the whole his form for the Stars and Stripes has backed that up.

The Florida raised striker made his full international debut in 2007, and has been a regular member of the US senior set up since 2009, where he played during the USMNT’s qualifying campgaing for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. When used in the current set up under Jurgen Klinsmann, Altidore is usually paired up front with U.S Captain Clint Dempsey, with Altidore primarily playing with his back to goal, holding the ball well to draw defenders and creating space for Dempsey to run on to and score.

For many fans of U.S. Soccer, Altidore was once seen as the Great Hope for American soccer, that prototypical powerful forward who could break into the top levels of European competition and show the world that Americans can excel at the world’s game, and despite some success abroad Altidore has not quite lived up to those expectations.

Altidore is making his second attempt to break into the English Premier League, where he currently plays as a forward for Sunderland. Prior to this, he enjoyed 2 very successful seasons with Dutch side AZ Alkmaar, the team he joined following a rather unsuccessful period as a Villarreal player. He scored 22 goals across all competitions his first year in the Eredivisie, was 7th in the league scoring charts. The following year, he continued his pace by scoring 31 goals across all competitions. His success was surprising given his poor finishing and success and during his time as a Villarreal player and on loan to Premier League side Hull City.

Despite his struggles at Villarreal, Hull City and currently at Sunderland, Altidore seemed to find his form much easier while wearing the red, white and blue kit of the United States. Some supporters may suspect that the level of competition for internationals is on average below club level, and there may be some merit to that, as Arsene Wenger seems to believe. While playing in England, Altidore seemed to be unable to impose his physicality on equally physically gifted opposing defenders, often getting bullied off the ball or simply losing it when hesitating in the slightest. For the United States however, he seems to terrorize central defenders and almost score at will (21 goals in 73 caps is nothing to shake a stick at). The teams the USMNT routinely competes against are skilled, but tend to lack to overall combination of technical ability and physical play that the club teams in the English Premier League boast.

One could argue (and Jozy has) that the system currently run at Sunderland does not suit his talents. Altidore was primarily used as a lone striker and target man, where as stated before, he was often bullied off the ball. For the USA, however, he plays as part of a 2 man strike force alongside Clint Dempsey. In this system, the pressure is not solely on Altidore’s shoulders, and perhaps it is this psychological aspect that allows him to be so successful for the USA and so unsuccessful for his club teams. When playing for the US, perhaps he no longer reads too much into the ball not falling into his path on a run, or a corner kick dipping towards the near post when he’s at the far post. He’s allowed to play his style of football, and the team is better for it.

Regardless of the underlying reason for his struggles at Sunderland, the United States supporters will surely hope he returns to goal scoring form for the Stars and Stripes against Belgium. No one is sure of how much Altidore will be able to give as he returns from what initially looked like a horrific hamstring injury against Ghana. Despite his shortcomings for his club teams, the US team with Altidore in it has almost always been stronger than a US team without Jozy Altidore leading the line.

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