Postcard from Europe: Altidore soaks up Dutch education
AMSTERDAM – It's been nearly two semesters since Jozy Altidore began advanced 4-3-3 schooling at AZ Alkmaar. With the club one point off the Eredivisie perch and one foot placed in the Europa League's final four, the striker says he's prepared for final exams.
When Altidore arrived last July, AZ manager Gertjan Verbeek and staff went straight to work, drilling him with standard No. 9 touches of all heights for nearly an hour during his first day in training. The American has been an eager pupil, to say the least.
The 22-year-old striker hopped off the bench on his debut to bag the insurance goal in a win over PSV Eindhoven. In Sunday's 2-2 draw at Vitesse, Altidore opened the scoring for his career-best 11th goal of the league season.
"I've finally found my identity as a player," Altidore told MLSsoccer.com after AZ's 2-1 Europa League victory against Valencia last Thursday. "I struggled with that a long time and coming here helped me find that."
Though it goes well beyond stats, let's not skip over them quite so fast. Altidore leads the team in Eredivisie play and overall with 15 goals across all competitions. He's even added a handful of assists, including both in a crucial 2-0 win against Europa League victims Udinese.
That all signals progress for the young forward, with previous career bests long ago falling by the wayside. Past the production, though, is where the Dutch tutelage has paid off the most so far. Altidore now understands and ably carries out his function in helping the attack develop methodically.
"I'm a big guy, use my body and hold up the ball," he said. "I have a few tricks to me, but I'm not a Cristiano Ronaldo. It's kinda the time when you say, 'OK, this is who I am and how I'm going to play.' They've helped make me a better player."
Despite plenty of high marks, Altidore's freshman campaign at AZ has not been without some character tests. He's had a few spells out of the lineup and a couple of goal droughts, forcing him to show that he can fight for the starting place even when things aren’t necessarily going his way.
Of course, he also understands that Verbeek is a manager known for pushing certain players with unusual methods and challenges that resemble mind game. While some observers back home in the United States may have worried over match days spent on the sub's bench, Altidore takes them in stride like a student struggling to catch up to his master.
"At the end of the day, he's like a teacher," he said. "He tries to teach as much as he can. When the folks back home don't see you, they think something bad happened. But there's a reason he does everything."
One of those reasons is keeping Altidore as fresh as possible, while also building his match fitness. There's been visible progress in that area, with the US striker already six games past his previous season high of 29 for loan employers Hull City in 2009-10.
With a half-dozen Eredivisie contests and at least Thursday's Europa League quarterfinal second leg at Valencia remaining, Altidore should break 40 club matches for the first time in his career. He seems less impressed with this bit of progress, talking as if this stat is the bare minimum for anyone who considers himself to be a player on the hunt for European silver.
"It's the kind of season that a top club has," Altidore says in a matter-of-fact manner. "It's not like I'm just trying to talk up the club like we're Barcelona, but it's April and we're playing in two competitions, having just dropped out of the third. And we want to win them."
This attitude and the improved work in the build up has carried over to US national team duty, even if the statistical progress shown at AZ has yet to cross over. In the Yank’s last game, though, Altidore's classic No. 9 set-up play in Genoa on Clint Dempsey's winner helped the US post a first-ever victory against Italy.
With an artsy beard beginning to grow, Altidore turns intellectual over the famous result, as if it was less about the achievement than where the step-by-step growth of American soccer can lead. It's apparent he already has one eye on the start of World Cup qualifying, if not the Brazil tourney itself.
"It's not only that we won in Italy, it's how we won," he declared. "I think we are showing signs of playing good soccer. We showed that we can dig deep and get the win. I think we're getting confidence in playing the ball and getting chances, and that's good because down the road that's what we're going to have to do."
In short, the US set-up has many tasks that match AZ's system and should have more in store as they progress on the path to the 2014 World Cup. All in all, things are lining up well for a developing striker that now has firm grip on his role, if not quite his goals, for both teams at once.
"I'm starting to always feel comfortable, finally, and that's important for players," Altidore said. "When you go back to the States, there's a lot of the same things and don't have to change your ways. It makes everything easier."