Has Jozy Altidore’s Premier League legacy damaged the reputation of US players?

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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.

[ RELATED: Altidore swap confirmed ]

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.

[ RELATED: Klinsmann: “Altidore good for 4, 5 goals at World Cup” ]

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?

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Altidore’s struggles at Sunderland were much talked about 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?”

[ RELATED: Geoff Cameron: Hazard “best I’ve played against” in PL ]

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.

[ RELATED: Altidore misses sitter for Sunderland vs. West Ham ]

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.

Hyndman, Hamid seal permanent MLS deals

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Two players who have featured for the U.S. Men’s National Team in the past signed permanent MLS deals on Monday, after spending the all or parts of the 2019 MLS season on loan in the league.

The question is, should we be disappointed? It’s two USMNT-eligible players in their prime who are leaving Europe for regular playing time? Will that playing time get them back in the USMNT picture? Or were their old club teams simply the problem before?

[ MORE: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

It was a return for Bill Hamid, who was a D.C. United homegrown player and arguably the first player on the team sheet between 2009-2017. Hamid actually returned from Europe in 2018 and spent all of the last year and a half on loan from FC Midtjylland in Denmark.

Hyndman on the other hand signed a permanent deal with Atlanta United, after the former MLS Cup champions signed the 23-year-old midfielder on a loan deal from Bournemouth in the Premier League. It was Hyndman’s fourth club in four years – including three loan moves – and perhaps Atlanta is a place he can put down roots and stay for the long term.

Per both D.C. United and Atlanta United, both players signed multi-year deals. D.C. United reportedly even paid a transfer fee for Hamid.

Both players are solid to good players in MLS, and as Americans, they add quality and don’t cost a team an international spot. But for the U.S. Men’s National Team, it’s unclear how this could affect the pair.

On one hand, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter has shown a preference to certain players he had in the 2019 January camp, including guys like Nick Lima, Paul Arriola and Christian Roldan, even if performances don’t necessarily merit them playing each match. On the other hand, as someone who has played in Germany, and England, Berhalter surely understands the benefits of challenging yourself every few years to play and train at a higher level. It doesn’t have to be Jurgen Klinsmann levels, where every single year they have to step it up, but finding a new way to freshen things up in a tough environment can have positive benefits for everyone, assuming there is playing time.

For Hyndman, who moved to Fulham’s academy in 2011 at the age of 15, it marks the end of seven years in Europe trying to break in. He had decent half-season spells with Hibernian and Rangers in the Scottish Premier Division, but one can argue that Atlanta United is itself on a higher level of play. That being said, Hyndman has clearly decided that regular gametime is best for his development as a player than relocating to the Netherlands, Italy or Germany to play. He wasn’t likely to get any at Bournemouth, even with their current Premier League struggles.

In Hamid’s case, he took a chance on Europe with FC Midtjylland. However, pretty quickly he realized that it wasn’t the right situation for him and within six months, he was back on D.C. United on loan for the next year and a half.

In both cases, there may have been options to continue their European adventures. Whether it was in the Championship or another “mid-major” European league, in the past, two players entering their primes might have tried to stay in Europe a little longer. But the lure of MLS, with a decent salary, less competition for places and the opportunity to play at home in front of family is a strong one, and the national team will have to adjust with it.

 

Would Saul make sense at Man United?

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As Manchester United prepares its roster construction for the future, one player that’s reportedly on the shortlist is Atletico Madrid central midfielder Saul Niguez.

Although originally from Elche, in southeast Spain, Saul has been on the books of Atletico Madrid since 2008 (other than a season on loan with Rayo Vallecano), making his first team debut in 2012 and growing from a scrawny midfielder into an international-calibre box-to-box star for both club and country. Per Diario AS, Man United has been interested in signing Saul before, and now it’s been revived. The report states, “The interest from Manchester is very real, and strong.”

[READ: Arsenal comes back to beat West Ham]

So, what kind of a player is Saul?

As mentioned before, he’s a sturdy, powerful box-to-box midfielder who can win headers defensively and knows how to play well in a Diego “Cholo” Simeone system. At the same time, he’s certainly not afraid to make a late run into the box. Last season he tied a career high with four goals in La Liga and also scored in the UEFA Champions League.

At 25-years old, he’s a hardened veteran player. But is he what Man United needs?

If you look at the current squad at Ole Gunnar Solskjaer‘s disposal, he’s got quite a few No. 8’s, right? There’s Paul Pogba, Andreas Pereira, and Fred. You can argue Scott McTominay has at times played like an 8, as has Jesse Lingard on occasion. One might argue that what Man United really needs is a better No. 6, someone who can be a destroyer and cover a lot of ground, freeing up that side of the game so Pogba could feel more comfortable attacking.

If Man United were to sign Saul in January – or next summer – we could potentially see him line up in a midfield three, though he’d be center right with Pogba to his left. Behind the pair would be McTominay to clean up the messes.

On paper, it’s a decent midfield for sure, but it’s just one step on Man United’s path towards becoming a team that can challenge for the Premier League and Champions League.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Saul carries a $166 million transfer release clause, and for the player he is, considering he doesn’t score many goals and affects the game in little ways, it’s a lot to spend for a guy who isn’t a guarantee to improve his team enough to make it back to the Champions League.

But if Man United was able to negotiate a better transfer fee for Niguez, they could do worse than a talented midfielder from Atletico Madrid. The question then will be – is Saul a system player (only successful under Simeone), or can he find success in the Premier League too?

USWNT’s Rapinoe named SI Sportswoman of the Year

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In 2019, Megan Rapinoe won a World Cup title, Golden Ball, Golden Boot, FIFA World Cup MVP, and the Ballon d’Or. Now, she can add her name to another distinguished list.

Sports Illustrated on Monday revealed that Rapinoe had been named SI’s 2019 Sportsperson of the Year. She’s the first individual soccer player from any gender to win the award, and she follows the 1999 U.S. Women’s National Team as the second USWNT-related athlete to garner the award.

[READ: Rapinoe wins 2019 Ballon d’Or]

Other notable winners of this award are Serena Williams, LeBron James, the Golden State Warriors, Michael Jordan, and Muhammad Ali.

“Even in a year with many great candidates, choosing Megan as the Sportsperson of the Year was an easy decision,” Steve Cannella, co-editor-in-chief of Sports Illustrated said in a statement released by the magazine. “She is a force of nature on and off the field, a trailblazing soccer player who also proves every day how large and loud a voice a socially conscious athlete can have in 2019.”

Rapinoe has had about as good of a year as a player can have, and she did it under enormous pressure. She withstood verbal and online taunts from the U.S. president for her noted opposition against his political decisions, as well as dealt with injuries during the tournament. Even if she wasn’t always at her best on the field, she found a way to score key goals at important moments.

Every Women’s World Cup seems to raise the profile of the USWNT and soccer in this country, but beyond her work on the field, Rapinoe’s hair, media savvy and ultimately, her performance won over any critic she could have. What she’s done for soccer in this country is immeasurable, and hopefully there are people that have a desire to keep watching the beautiful game after the World Cup, thanks in some part to Rapinoe.

Rapinoe will grace the cover of Sports Illustrated for the Dec. 16 issue.

Ljungberg on Pepe: He ‘showed his quality’

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Arsene Wenger used to say that players needed around six months once they came to the Premier League to get adjusted to both living in England and getting acclimated to the pace and physicality of the league.

For Nicolas Pepe, it was advice well heeded.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Offensively, Pepe was outstanding as he scored a goal and an assist in Arsenal’s 3-1 win over West Ham. At the same time, Pepe worked hard on the defensive end, making life difficult for West Ham left back Aaron Cresswell and anyone down West Ham’s right flank.

On Monday, Pepe showed that he was worth his $87 million transfer fee, and he only needs a yard of space to create something magical.

“People always ask me about Nico and I try to explain,” Ljungberg after the game. “He comes from the French league, he comes to the Premier League – in my opinion the best league in the world – and it’s a lot faster and a lot harder. He needs to adapt. People put pressure on him but that’s not so easy, and I thought what he did today was he worked really hard offensively and defensively and showed his quality.

“I’m so pleased for him because at the same time he was a big, big buy for the club and then comes pressure with that as well. He will fall asleep with a smile tonight.”

In the 66th minute, Pepe found himself isolated on the wing with just Cresswell to beat. After cutting inside, Pepe curled home a beauty which ended up being the game-winning-goal. It was just his second Premier League goal of the season and his first from open play. Perhaps now after five months of bedding in at Arsenal, Pepe is ready to shine.

There’s no doubt that with Arsenal’s defensive issues, they need their attacking stars to score in bunches from here on out. If Pepe can finish the season with ten goals and ten assists, it will be a wild success, and set him up well for the next season.