AMSTERDAM – Two summers ago, we assured inquisitive stateside fans that Jozy Altidore would finally blossom at AZ Alkmaar. Now that he's on the move again to Sunderland, the question needing an answer is: Can the star US striker keep excelling in his second run at the Premier League?
The issue is a bit more complex than it was in 2011, when Altidore landed in the right place at the right time. Then 21, he needed a perfect recipe for growth and AZ director of football Earnie Stewart provided all the ingredients. He joined a strong and varied attack near the top of its league, gaining advanced tactical lessons, high expectations and the quirky grooming skills of manager Gertjan Verbeek.
The rest, as they say, is history, with the forward netting 50 goals, an Eredivisie Team of the Season nod and a KNVB Cup winner in two campaigns with the Cheese Farmers.
Is Altidore now ready to continue the upward trend at Sunderland? There are several variables worth considering.
The Playing Time
Once derided for his stamina, Altidore is now accustomed to playing all 90. He led all AZ field players in Eredivisie minutes played last season, at one point working 21 straight full league shifts (with 13 goals, it's worth noting).
The top returning Sunderland striker, Steven Fletcher (11 goals in 2012/13), will begin the season by trying to return from spring ankle surgery. Though manager Paolo Di Canio is hopeful he'll be ready to go for game one, Altidore is probably the surest bet to be opening-day starter right now. Danny Graham was miserable after arriving last term and the other three Black Cat forwards (Ji Dong-Won, David Moberg Karlsson and Connor Wickham) are still EPL kittens.
While his pitch time per game will surely decrease with Sunderland's deeper squad and heavier schedule, four more league matches and extra domestic cup competition could allow a healthy Altidore to at least approach the 3,000-minute barrier he easily passed last season.
You want us to tell you what kind of boss he can expect in the (pick a word) mercurial/unpredictable/quirky/nutball Di Canio? That's asking a bit much. Hey, we're not wizards.
What we can offer is the opinion that Altidore has matured enough to withstand or even profit from any sort of managerial effect. Let's remember that Verbeek was no Sunday stroll when the American arrived, either.
The New Set-Up Crew
Though among the lowest-scoring teams in the EPL last season, Sunderland do have attack parts with similar features to the one he left behind at AZ. Wingers Adam Johnson and Seb Larsson can each notch assists in a variety of ways, much like Altidore enjoyed with Adam Maher and Maarten Martens.
The 23-year-old American has also grown accustomed to close combo play as a successful means to breach the area for good shooting positions. Both Fletcher and attacking midfielder Stéphane Sessègnon excel in this two-man game, while Craig Gardner is more likely to present scoring opportunities with longer feeds and balls over the top, not unlike AZ man Viktor Elm.
The factor still to be determined in this equation is where Altidore slots in tactically. If he's asked to lead the line, he can likely expect more crosses from the flank. It could play to his favor, though, if he gets stationed behind natural target man Fletcher and has more freedom to face the opposing area on the dribble.
With every move to a new league, much less one of the highest quality, there are going to be adjustments that need to be made. Altidore does, however, have the cheat sheet that is his 2009-10 campaign as a teenager going on loan to relegation bait Hull City.
The largest change Altidore must make is operating in a more frenetic game pace, with a more direct style. Of course, he already knows the speeds required, information that one would hope will lead to more immediate and consistent production this time.
The other main difference is Altidore was still learning to score goals as a youngster at Hull. These days, he's proven himself capable of hitting from all angles, using any method. As such, prolonged breakdowns in a certain area of Sunderland's attack machine shouldn't curb his output as much as a less versatile attacker (e.g. Fletcher in a cross drought).
He will also have a larger glare from the supporters than when he arrived at AZ, which is not always a blessing in soccer-mad England – but his recent career dossier suggests that the New Jersey native has learned how to get it going when the going gets tough.
Altidore responded to being temporarily dropped to the bench in the winter of 2011 by closing AZ's season with 11 goals in 15 games and has responded to a similar episode with US boss Jurgen Klinsmann with four goals and a game-winning assist in the nine matches since.
When Altidore moved to AZ two summers ago, I predicted he would bag at least 15 goals across all competitions before his first campaign with AZ and no less than 25 during his second. Obviously, this unblemished record for niche clairvoyance puts a guy on the spot for a bold prediction.
Certainly not being content to disappoint, here goes: assuming Altidore maintains a reasonable level of fitness throughout, let's all hereby ink it down that he should be good for 12 Premier League goals this season.