The 2017 MLS Cup proved to be an ideal matchup for Major League Soccer. Not only was it a rematch that was more exciting than last year, it featured several star USMNT players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, and Michael Bradley with up and coming midfielder Cristian Roldan getting a game in the spotlight and Jordan Morris coming back to the 18 after an injury. Even better for MLS, the match took place in Toronto where the usual cascade of deafening boos that greeted Bradley and Altidore at away stadiums since the USMNT lost to Trinidad and Tobago were not heard.
Strangely, those boos seemed solely reserved for Bradley and Altidore. It is understandable and even deserved that fans should be upset with USMNT players for missing the World Cup, but if they were unhappy with Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Tim Howard, and Darlington Nagbe, they didn’t show it. USMNT supporters obviously have strong feelings about Bradley and it seems like the roots of dislike for Altidore also go back much further than October of 2017.
Jozy Altidore’s achievements can’t shake his pariah status
Scoring a well-finished strike in MLS Cup to bring Toronto FC its first ever championship, helping win the first ever treble in league history, and being awarded MVP of the match should have put a resounding exclamation point at the end of a mostly stellar 2017 for Altidore. Yet, somehow this accomplishment may only serve to make him a more divisive figure rather than one who should be celebrated. This follows a pattern that has been well established throughout Altidore’s career that even matching his best form from his days in Holland doesn’t seem likely to change.
Usually, winning a playoff game and scoring a go ahead goal in a championship despite what looked to be a serious injury is the kind of thing that creates a mythos that builds a player into a legend, but for Altidore, it seems to just make him a more divisive figure. Indeed, Altidore’s career with club and country has seen him develop into one of the most talented players the U.S. has ever produced. He’s been a mainstay with the USMNT since he was a teenager and is the team’s best striker as the roster currently stands. His value to the Stars and Stripes is obvious as he showed when he helped set up the game-winning goal against Algeria in the 2010 World Cup and when the team struggled badly with his absence in 2014.
At the age of 28, he is just 16 goals behind the record that Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan share of 57 goals scored internationally. He was arguably the team’s best player during the qualifying campaign, leading the side with 8 goals.* Altidore even provided a signature moment in the game against Panama in Orlando when he confidently took a Paneka.
Of course, poor game planning, less than inspired play by the entire team after an emotional victory, a phantom goal in Panama, and an unlikely result for Honduras sealed the fate of the USMNT in Trinidad & Tobago. As a result, rather than being recognized as a key player who scored timely goals to bring the U.S. to the World Cup, Altidore, along with Bradley, is receiving the brunt of the criticism for missing the tournament.
In some ways Altidore has brought a degree of ridicule upon himself. In his career he hasn’t exactly always displayed the best judgement as this blog post humorously summarizes. Most recently, the confrontation with Sacha Kljestan that led to their each player getting a red card in the MLS Playoffs had the feel of a someone who had perhaps let the weight of failing to qualify for the World Cup and all the criticism that came with it get to him. On the other hand, it may have just been the competitive qualities that make Altidore a great striker getting the better of him and was just one more time that Altidore proved to be a habitual line stepper.
However, this is not exactly exceptional behavior for a soccer player. Sacha Kljestan himself got a red card in his first season back in MLS after struggling to re-adapt to the league. As his own actions showed in the confrontation with Altidore, he has also helped the New York Red Bulls develop something of an identity based around cornball, hackneyed antics while the team was polishing off a season in which they barely managed to make the MLS playoffs. The player Altidore is chasing for the USMNT goals record, Clint Dempsey, once assaulted a referee only to go unpunished by USSF aside from losing his team captaincy, a decision made by Jurgen Klinsmann. Yet, Altidore’s USMNT teammates don’t receive the same kind of negative treatment from fans that he does.
Expectations, standards of excellence, and stereotypes
It seems like part the criticism that Altidore receives comes from the fact that he doesn’t fit into the ideal that fans have for the best American players. Rather than having one of the top Americans tearing up Europe and facing the best that the world has to offer every match, Altidore is in MLS taking on the Je-Vaughn Watsons of the world. Indeed, rather than being an overwhelming success, the time that Altidore spent in Europe included a fruitless tenure with Villarreal, several loans that didn’t pan out, a very successful run with AZ, and more struggles in a less than ideal situation in Sunderland. Coming back to MLS was met with a collective groan from USMNT supporters and Altidore’s national team coach as well.
Aside from complaints about the league he plays in, the striker also has had his commitment to representing his country questioned because of his pre-game habit of not holding his hand over his heart during the national anthem. Despite explaining that he does so because of his religious beliefs, a fan in New York accosted him in November about his perceived lack of knowing what it is like to represent his country in a fit of ugly nationalism. Questioning the loyalty of someone who may very well spend half of his life representing his country on the soccer field because of his religious beliefs is obviously way out of line.
However, what is less obvious, and even less frequently discussed, is how criticisms of Altidore are tinged with stereotypes about black athletes. Specifically, nearly any conversation about him is accompanied by comments that Altidore is lazy or acts entitled. In the context of the USMNT, these stereotypes are further sharpened by the ideal of the American male soccer player as having to constantly display the virtues of being hardworking, playing with team spirit, and showing a never say die attitude; virtues that are most often associated with white athletes. Despite proving time and again that he has the passion, talent, and skills to fit that mold, public views of Altidore have also been affected by latent racism and stereotypes of black athletes. The fact that he isn’t white and is growing into one of the best strikers in USMNT history seems to be something that fans of a sport that is typically associated with white surburbanites hold against him.
In the end, there seem to be two attitudes that fans have towards Altidore. There are those who take a more nuanced view about his career and look at what he has become and how he has improved even while playing in a league that isn’t one of the best in the world. On the other side are fans with a negative attitude towards him that lacks room for discussion about his positive attributes or consideration how factors such as nationalism and racism factor into how Altidore is viewed in general. Despite this, Jozy Altidore continues to develop his game, become a more effective player, and prove that he is undeserving of the excessive criticism that is lobbed at him.
*Authors note - Originally the article listed Altidore as scoring 8 goals during the Hex, not the overall qualifying campaign and has been edited accordingly.