With Jozy Altidore’s move back to Major League Soccer confirmed on Friday, my thoughts immediately switched to the legacy he will leave behind in the Premier League following two goals in 68 appearances with Hull City and, most recently, Sunderland.
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Altidore, 25, arrived at the Stadium of Light with the world at his feet in July 2013 as he signed for the Black Cats from AZ Alkmaar in a $13 million deal after becoming the highest scoring U.S. player in Europe in history (31 goals with AZ in 2012-13) and was supposed to be Paolo Di Canio’s main striker up top.
But within a month the manager who bought him was fired and Altidore’s confidence in front of goal plummeted throughout his 18-month spell on Wearside. In the end, he quite simply had to get out of England. For most of his stay at Sunderland, home fans were supportive and genuinely wanted him to succeed. But after being given numerous chances to shine by incoming boss Gus Poyet, Altidore failed to take any of them despite brief glimpses of hope.
Being in England throughout Altidore’s time at Sunderland and watching his career slowly unravel from a forward going through a sticky patch to him being labelled the worst signing and/or striker in PL history, it was tough to see a man who we’ve all seen flourish time and again with the U.S. national team struggling through one cameo display after another. But the bigger issue here is about the legacy Altidore has left behind for U.S. players aiming to make a career in the Premier League. Has his lack of goals and shocking misses for Sunderland impacted the reputation of American players in England?
Maybe. Maybe not. Most coaches, pundits and fans in the PL may just look at it as Altidore had a bad spell and every player should be judged on their individual merits. But there’s still a stigma which remains surrounding American players in England, and Europe, for that matter. Altidore’s dreadful time in the PL will only act to reinforce the fact that U.S. players still have a long way to go in order to gain the respect of the so-called “soccer nations” as time goes on.
After Altidore recently missed from four-yards out for Sunderland during their 1-1 draw with West Ham United in December, the U.S. striker was hammered by the press in the UK. Sadly, it was not for the first time. The Sky Sports panel obliterated Altidore in this rant, for failing to not convert the simple tap-in. National TV and radio shows have all jumped on the bandwagon and I’ve lost count of the number of times I tried to defend Altidore’s performances in press boxes to English journalists who asked things like “is he this bad for the USA?” or “he has to be the worst player in PL history, right?”
Altidore definitely isn’t the worst player in Premier League history, but the sad fact is that the general population will forget his incredible performance for Sunderland away at Newcastle during their 3-0 derby win last January and the penalty he won at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea when Sunderland inflicted Jose Mourinho’s only home defeat in the PL as Chelsea boss. So, Altidore has shown brief glimpses of the influential player he can be, but it happened sporadically throughout his 18-month stay at the Stadium of Light.
On his unveiling with Toronto FC, here’s what Altidore had to say about his struggles with Sunderland.
“As a professional, there are going to be times when everything is not perfect,” Altidore said. “In those times, how you react to those moments will define you. For me, it was a very difficult time for a number of reasons on and off the field in England. But I have a great support system in my family and I was still able to perform at the highest level with the U.S. national team.”
Sure he didn’t score much, but there’s more to his game than that. When I asked Jurgen Klinsmann about Altidore’s situation at Sunderland following the New Jersey native netting a penalty in the USA’s 2-1 friendly defeat to Colombia last November, the USMNT head coach was adamant Altidore would have scored 4-5 goals at the World Cup and made a huge difference had he not pulled his hamstring in the opening game vs. Ghana. Cue mumbled laughs from some sections of the assembled press, both U.S. and English.
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When confident and given the ability to be the main man, Altidore can deliver what you ask of him. He can hold up the ball, bring others into the game, run at defenses and, yes, score goals. But now he has left the PL and returned to the relative warm cocoon of MLS where his career began with the New York Red Bulls and everyone expects him to score bucket loads of goals for Toronto, what reputation is he leaving behind in the PL for U.S. players?
I’d argue it is a damaged one. Not because he didn’t try hard or he sulked when things went wrong. It was just the sheer lack of nous and confidence he possessed in front of goal, but perhaps that was to be expected as plenty of players stepping up from scoring goals in the Dutch Eredivisie in the past have struggle to adapt to the PL. Altidore wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to challenge himself to play in the best league and not quite make the cut. But the likes of Clint Dempsey, Brian McBride and Landon Donovan have all helped to pave the way for American players to have a career in the PL. Given his poor displays, whether it’s his fault or not, Altidore could see all of that hard work from those aforementioned stars take a hit.
Maybe Altidore’s poor displays in the PL won’t harm the image of American players to the English, European and global audience who tune in every week to watch in their hundreds of millions. I hope not.
But maybe the next generation of American youngsters playing in England like DeAndre Yedline, Emerson Hyndman or even Gedion Zelalem will now have to deal with jibes of “ah, he’s just another Altidore” every time they put a foot wrong. Whether or not it’s his fault, Altidore’s legacy in England may have harmed the future of U.S. players heading to the Premier League. Then again, maybe it was just the wrong player signing for the wrong club at the wrong time.