Altidore has found his form at AZ, but is he headed for another move?
Jozy Altidore's European club season is over, and the final eye-popping numbers are in: 31 goals in all competitions for AZ Alkmaar, including 23 league strikes and eight in the Dutch Cup, which AZ won last week with Altidore scoring the game-winner. AZ did struggle in the Dutch league, finishing a disappointing 10th, but the 23-year-old Altidore's 31 goals broke Clint Dempsey's year-old record for goals scored in a European club season by a U.S. national team player.
"I've just grown this season," said Altidore, who was named to the Dutch league team of the season by De Telegraaf. "With the ups and downs you learn a lot about yourself. When you face criticism from supporters and the media as the season was going on, to come away from that bigger and better says a lot about the group. It's a great feeling to help lead these guys, and to finish it off with a trophy is amazing."
What finally clicked for Altidore in the Netherlands after he had struggled to make an impact at Spain's Villarreal and England's Hull City? To hear Earnie Stewart, the former U.S. World Cup forward who's now AZ's director of soccer, instruction and patience were key.
"This is a country where young players are allowed to play and make a lot of mistakes and learn from them," Stewart said. "In other countries, if you go to Spain or Italy, the waiting time for young talent isn't so long. What we spoke about when we brought him to AZ was there's a way of playing as a center-forward here in Holland, and you understand what you need to do within your role. He's been fantastic at that."
For Altidore, that meant learning to do what he calls the little things: Making the simple runs that needed to be made, getting himself in front of the goal and working hard to connect with his teammates. What's more, just as a college basketball star needs the right situation to succeed in the NBA, Altidore finally found the right club fit after things hadn't worked out elsewhere following his $10 million transfer to Villarreal in 2008.
"I was given a great opportunity, which is kind of rare," he said. "I came here and was basically told, 'You're going to have your chance, and it's yours to take.' I never had that anywhere else. You always have to fight for your position -- you're never going to walk into a team -- but I was given a direct crack at it. I was able to show I was one of the better players and win my position. That was the biggest factor for me the last two years."
With the club season now behind Altidore, two big questions remain:
• Will he change clubs this summer? The manager at AZ, Gertjan Verbeek, said recently that he expects Altidore will make a move during the summer transfer window. That could mean joining a bigger club in the Netherlands or in another country. Altidore says his agent, Lyle Yorks, has been in Europe talking to clubs, but for now he has focused on playing and stayed out of the conversation.
While it's likely that Altidore will move, Stewart said it wasn't yet a certainty. "What the manager was trying to say was that once you're good, there's going to be interest there, and you might be able to move and make the next step," he explained. "But if he does it, he has to make the right step and not make the same move he made at Villarreal, where all of the sudden the development isn't going to be as good as it is somewhere else. And obviously we as clubs have to find an agreement to do that."
• Can Altidore start scoring again for the U.S. national team? It's strange but true: Altidore hasn't scored for the U.S. since November 2011 in a friendly against Slovenia. The adjustment to manager Jurgen Klinsmann hasn't always been an easy one for Altidore, who was dropped for two World Cup qualifiers last fall but has returned to start all three games so far in the Hexagonal.
"I've thought a lot about it," said Altidore, who has 13 international goals in 55 caps. "You just have to come to the reality that it's just a different playing style, a different mentality, so the results are going to be different. As a player I've bought into the system and am willing to put everything into that team. We have an identity, and you just have to buy into that and make the best of it. At this moment we can't play the type of soccer that maybe the fans want to see. But we have to try to get into the World Cup. If this is how we have to do it, then this is how we have to do it."
One lingering question is when Altidore will be able to join the U.S. camp, which starts May 21. AZ doesn't have to release him until June 2 per FIFA rules, and the club was unwilling to let Altidore go early last year, a decision that ended up hurting Altidore's playing time for the U.S. last summer. The decision is out of Altidore's hands, but it does seem likely that AZ will relent at least somewhat from its hard-line stance.
"We're in discussions right now with the U.S. Soccer Federation, so I can't really elaborate on that," Stewart said on Monday. "But we've had talks."
With three important World Cup qualifiers coming up in June, it would be an ideal time for Altidore to rediscover his scoring touch at the international level.