Armchair Analyst: Altidore rising in the Low Countries
Jozy Altidore has gone to the Netherlands to score some "soft" goals.
It must be true because I read it on the Internet.
Altidore is over there simply abusing the awful Dutch defenders, who play awful Dutch defense and don't have an awful lot of talent. Anyone could score those goals, and anyone should and why didn't he before? He still stinks. I read it on the Internet.
You've probably read it, too. Jozy's gotten himself some tap-ins over the past couple of weeks, and a loud minority of the SuperFans aren't too pleased. Those goals are too "easy."
The count, after AZ Alkmaar's 6-0 Europa League slaughter of Aalesunds FK on Thursday — a game in which Altidore bagged a brace — is up to five goals in 215 minutes spread across five games. Each one of the five tallies has been a one-touch finish in the box.
And fans of the US national team should be telling it on the mountain. It's not the savior that's come, it's the center forward.
For the past two years, the US have essentially played without a traditional No. 9. A big part of that was Charlie Davies' unfortunate accident; another big part of it was that Altidore didn't seem to want anything to do with getting into space in the box.
His club teams, first Villarreal then Bursaspor, obliged him, more often than not playing him on the wing. He would occasionally be useful there because he's become very good at holding the ball up and has always been a better passer than he's given credit for. It's a skillset that allowed him to play with his back to the goal at midfield, then turn and thread a ball through to whichever true forward was trying to beat the high line.
But that's one very specific skill set, and not enough to make up for his overall shortcomings on the wing. When Villarreal gave up on him this summer, a lot of the US fanbase did as well.
Altidore's resurrection in the Netherlands has drawn a lot of those folks back, as it should. First of all, because it's Holland, and nobody has a better history of crafting talented athletes into talented soccer players than the Dutch.
Second, because the goals he's scoring these days aren't the kind that are based on ball skills or athleticism — rather they're a center forward's goals, scores that rely more on smarts and movement in the box than touch or streakiness.
And that doesn't make them "easy" goals. The hardest thing to do in sports isn't hitting a baseball, it's finding space in the penalty area. The finish may end up being a tap-in, but that's because a ton of hard work went into getting into that spot in the first place.
Look at Chicharito with Manchester United and/or Mexico — the next time he beats somebody off the dribble will be the first time. But it doesn't matter because nobody works harder or smarter off the ball, and that makes the entire team more difficult to defend.
Altidore's now doing that hard work, learning how to position himself to get those one-touch finishes, and it bodes well for the US' future. Teams that stayed compact against the Yanks should be forced to open up if he's pushing the line away from the ball. If he's moving well in the box — not just reacting to a pass that's been played, but making the fundamental runs any center forward should and anticipating the play — the US attack, which has been sputtering for a long time, is suddenly much less predictable.
The work's not done yet, of course. Altidore needs to keep this up, becoming ever-sharper in his movement and his finishing. And the truth is, Aalesunds did give him far too much space on Thursday.
Costa Rica and Belgium will not be so flexible next week.
But regardless, he took the space and punished the Tangotrøyene, and that's the most promising step in the development of his game — the only step that mattered, really, because "Jozy the winger, the face-up attacker" had maxed out, while "Jozy the center forward" is just scratching the surface of what he can become.
We've got a taste of it now, so does he, and in all likelihood it'll transfer over to the international level. The US have a lot of guys who are gifted at creating chances — Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and Sacha Kljestan all practically leap to mind — but nobody's been on the end of them recently.
Altidore should be there now. He's finally learning a fundamental part of any center forward's game, the off-the-ball stuff that leads to oh-so-many "easy" goals.
It's the best reason to go to the Netherlands.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MLS_Analyst