Is Jozy Altidore the First Great Striker in U.S. Soccer History?

The stadium scene.
Aug. 16 2013 7:31 PM

The Great Strike Hope

Is Jozy Altidore the first great goal scorer in U.S. soccer history?

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Schulz, of course, wasn't alone in his aspirations. Altidore’s MLS debut in 2006 was all it took to stoke widespread irrational exuberance. Here he is scoring a beautiful goal in his first appearance as a pro.

He's such an unknown commodity that the announcers can't pronounce his last name. (“Altidor-AY—he’s gonna have a go!”) But who cares? He could save America.

In 2008 Altidore signed with Villarreal—the first American (excluding dual citizen Giuseppe Rossi, who represents Italy) to transfer to a top club in Spain's first division. By that point, he'd become a vessel for the collective dreams of our national soccer id. He'd been saddled with impossible expectations. This happens in other countries, too. But Altidore was, at the time, America’s only realistic hope for an elite striker.

In part this was due to his physical stature. He simply looked the part. At 18—heck, at 16—he was the same 6-foot-1-inch bruiser he is today. But he hadn't grown into his frame, and Villarreal was too much too soon. Altidore couldn't get on the field and was quickly loaned out to, in succession, Xerez (Spain), Hull City (England) and Bursaspor (Turkey).* No stint was more disastrous than Hull City, where Altidore played 28 games and scored one goal. From 2008 to 2011, he scored only three times as a pro. He was just as bad for the USMNT, where he experienced a drought that lasted almost two years and ended this June. Little more than a year ago, Altidore was widely considered a disappointment, if not an outright bust.

As expectations waned, however, Altidore thrived. A move in 2011 to AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league, which has served as an incubator for other Americans, was a step down in competition and one that Altidore needed. In Holland he could make mistakes and develop at a natural rate. He blossomed. In his first season, he scored 22 goals. In his second he had 31. This season he'll return to the Premiership in England, with Sunderland, again with high expectations.

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“I have brought him in and I don’t hope, I am sure he will be a success," Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio told the press recently. “He is the size I need. He jumps hard and he is an animal. He attacks every space and his first touch is good. He is fantastic finisher and that is a good mixture."

Altidore has always had size and power. At 23, he has improved his touch, mainly because he's learned to make smarter runs and position himself better before receiving the ball. But the key ingredient is poise, which flows from confidence. It may sound wishy-washy and unscientific, but this is what every striker talks about and it is almost certainly true. Poise separates a striker near the goal, where he has fractions of a second to make a decision, to shake a defender, to find space and shoot. The striker must be impervious to doubt. He must be sure. He must be cold.

This is a cognitive function, not an athletic one, and it’s why there are so few elite strikers in the world. Lots of players have the physical ability. It’s the ability not to panic that is key. In his last five games for the USMNT, Altidore has scored seven goals and showed a poise he didn't possess a few years ago. He has regained his confidence. He has not panicked.

And he has benefitted from playing on teams that better undergird his abilities. In the past Altidore struggled as a lone striker. Without good service from wingers and the midfield, he was often stranded, unable to create opportunities for himself. At AZ Alkmaar, a crew of talented support players fed him intelligent passes. He has been getting similar service on the U.S. team from newcomers like Graham Zusi and mainstays like Bradley. When Donovan, the country's all-time assists leader, rejoins the first team, Altidore will see even more opportunities.

Many of those chances result from improved buildup play through the American midfield. The U.S. team used to dump the ball, often on a counterattack, to Altidore and hope for the best. Now, the midfielders aim for possession, as they did against Bosnia-Herzegovina, which allows them to probe for weaknesses in a defense, which then allows Altidore to run onto more through balls, always one of his strengths.

The thought of pairing a resurgent Altidore with another forward in a 4-4-2 formation should tantalize coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The brief 27-minute stretch where Altidore shared the field with debutant Aron Johannsson, an Icelandic-American striker Klinsmann persuaded to play for the United States (and who is now AZ Alkmaar's main goal-scoring threat) must have sent a shudder through CONCACAF. Johannsson was dynamic in possession, with a quicksilver touch. Combine his skills with Altidore's power up front, and the U.S. national team could have, for the first time since Charlie Davies went down, the potential for a fearsome two-pronged attack.

Maybe Altidore is in the form of his life, but he's started to look like the player everyone hoped he was, unfairly, four years ago. The proof will come next summer—American forwards have, after all, failed to score in the last two World Cups. Now, at least, it’s hard to bet against him. The most telling moment in the Bosnia-Herzegovina game came after his first strike, the one that leveled the score at 2–2. Altidore ran to the Bosnian net, grabbed the ball, and brought it back to the center stripe. That is a player who wants to win and knows he can. That is a player American fans have been waiting to see for well nigh a century.

Correction, Aug. 18, 2013: This piece originally misspelled the name of the Turkish club Bursaspor. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Luke O’Brien is a writer in Washington, D.C.