BRIAN SCIARETTA - Tuesday, April 16, 2013
As his career breakout season in 2012/13 draws to a close, Jozy Altidore is looking to finish strong with AZ Alkmaar as it could be his last year with the club.
Altidore, 23, scored a hat trick on Sunday in a 6-0 win over Utrecht to raise his total to 28 goals on the season across all competitions. Last month he surpassed Clint Dempsey's total of 24 to set a new American single season record for scoring in Europe.
Two of Altidore's goals against Utrecht came from the spot and his role as a penalty taker is relatively new. With few of his previous goals coming from penalties, Altidore asked his teammates prior to the game if he could take a penalty if the opportunity came about. After burying both with ease, the potential is now there for him to reach an extraordinary 30 goals.
Despite the record season, the New Jersey-born Altidore insists this is not a dream season as Alkmaar is only now beginning to separate itself from a relegation fight that plagued it most of the year.
"It's certainly not a dream season," Altidore told YA. "We haven't played well through stretches of the season so that part is disappointing. In terms of having good fortune in front of the goal, that part is always nice. It's important that we stay up and possibly get into Europe for next season. Things can turn at the drop of a dime so we have to stay focused and finish out the season strong."
Throughout the season as Atlidore continued to be one leading scores in the Eredivisie, rumors began to circulate that AZ would sell him this summer in a major transfer deal. After the 2011/12 season, Altidore attracted interest for major clubs but with an improved year, speculation is now that his transfer value has risen to a point where AZ simply cannot refuse.
Last week AZ Alkmaar head coach Gertjan Verbeek confirmed the obvious and told Dutch media that he expects Altidore to be sold in the upcoming summer transfer window. While Altidore enjoys it at AZ, he also understands this side of the game.
"It's one of those things where at the end of the day we're professionals," Altidore said. "This is a job and this is a business. People who run this business make decisions that will better themselves as a company. For me I have to find a place where I am comfortable. I love playing here and I've grown fond of the place. I've settled down well but if the club feels it's in their best interest to part paths, you have to look and find a situation that's good for you too. I'm certainly in no rush to jump ship."
What lies ahead for Altidore is far from clear at this point. As one of the leading scores in the Eredivisie at a relatively young age, his price tag is likely to be very high and interest is likely to range from clubs all across Europe's top leagues.
Altidore insists that he will remain focused on the important games ahead for AZ and leave the transfer decisions for the summer. In particular, his top priority is both helping AZ avoid relegation and win its third ever Dutch Cup and first since 1982. AZ defeated Ajax in the semifinals of the Cup and will play PSV in the finals on May 8.
"Honestly, I haven't really thought about it very much," Altidore said of the likely transfer offers coming this summer. "We've been in such a tight situation but we have so many great things to play for. For me the Cup final is something that I've had my eye on for a long time. I'm really excited to end on a good note and I haven't thought about anything else outside of that to be honest."
This summer will not be the first time Altidore has been the focus of a major transfer. In fact, he already holds the record for most expensive American transfer ever when La Liga power Villarreal purchased him from MLS and the New York Red Bulls in 2008 for a reported price of $10 million.
At the time Altidore was only 18 and was seen as a player with major potential after becoming one of the leading scorers in MLS and having earned a place on the US national team. His time at Villarreal did not go as well as some had hoped and he was sent on various loans to Xerez of the Spanish Segunda, Hull City in the Premier League, and Bursaspor of Turkey's Super Lig.
In 2011, Altidore transferred to AZ and in the following season Villarreal were coincidentally relegated out of La Liga. After two years, however, Altidore has added new dimensions to his game and is living up to the potential he showed in memorable performances at the 2007 U-20 World Cup and in 2010 World Cup qualifying.
It is possible this summer that he could surpass his own record of highest valued transfer for an American player but Altidore does not want to compare the move he made in 2008 with the one he is likely to make in the months ahead. Unlike when he was a teenager with mere potential, he is now a proven player and a mature adult.
"I just think I've been through so much as both a player and as a person," Altidore discussed. "I've gone through a lot the past five or six years. I've adjusted in many ways mentally how I approach thing as a soccer player. I'm realistic and I keep things in perspective. I stay honest with myself and work as hard as possible. Hopefully with whatever happens this summer it's something that can help me further develop."
It's not only maturity that has helped Altidore the past two years, a major part of his improvement and growth as a player has come from playing in the Eredivisie. Long regarded as one of the best leagues in developing young players, Altidore has added several key dimensions to his game. He is combining well with teammates in the final third, scoring with his left foot, holding the ball up, dominating in the air, and making well timed runs off the ball.
Playing in a traditional Dutch 4-3-3 formation with AZ Alkmaar, Altidore has been forced to play many different roles in his team's offense and believes this wouldn't have been possible playing anywhere else.
"I've done a lot of things the past two years that I probably wouldn't have done the past few seasons," Altidore said of the Eredivisie. "I just think when I came here it was like I was going to an academy all over again. The amount of hours we train here and the emphasis tactically on how we move and how we shape. You can see it pays so many dividends for players. It's no coincidence you see so many Dutch players go on from the Eredivisie to have successful careers. You get so educated as a player here and you get to know the game so well."
In addition to developing many different areas of his game, Altidore has also learned to play within specific roles that best give AZ Alkmaar a chance to be effective. The growth into becoming a complete player gives him different ways to be effective but it also requires him to be disciplined.
Playing under Verbeek in a traditional Dutch system, Altidore is forced to focus on what helps AZ as opposed what he wants to do as a player.
"At some point in every player's career, they have to find out what type of player they are and base themselves on that," Altidore explained. "When you're a young kid, you explore a lot of ways to play and you feel like you can do a lot of different things. I'm not saying you can't do that but at some point to get to the highest level you have to do what you can do to be effective and not necessarily what you want. I just think I've figured out what I can do every time I step on the field to help my team be effective and I think I've just been having success at that. The coach as always said he wants me to be a complete player. It's not because he sees me as a special player, that's just how he approaches every player."
In addition to ending his successful tenure with AZ on a high note and finding the best fit in a summer transfer, the US national team is also an important area for Altidore personally. Altidore has been an important part of the team since 2008 but since Jurgen Klinsmann was hired as head coach in 2011, the team's offense has struggled and Altidore's production has yet to match what he achieves at his club.
With the US national team, Altidore often does not play the same role as he does with AZ Alkmaar as he is frequently a lone-striker and lacks numbers in support where he can combine with other attacking players. Last month, the US team earned quality results with a win over Costa Rica and a draw against Mexico at Azteca but the offense was still stagnant.
The US team is now in a good position in the hexagonal qualifying ahead of important games in June but Altidore realizes that the team is still a work in progress. Despite the four points in March, the US team only had one shot on goal between the two games and the team lacked rhythm in the final third.
The next three qualifiers, however, will be very indicative of where the team stands.
"It was a good result to get these points in World Cup qualifying," Altidore concluded. "We all know how difficult it is and how much of a grind it is. It was great to hold tight in the back and not concede any goals. We're still trying to find out what works. I don't think it's any secret to see that. I think you can tell by watching any game that we're not as fluid as we want to be. Are we getting there? Yes. But there is still work to be done. These next three games will kind of dictate how the Hex goes."
Altidore and AZ Alkmaar return to action this Saturday as they host PSV Eindhoven.