Believe it or not, Jozy Altidore is just 22 years old. He has been around for so long and gone through so much that it is easy to forget that the United States striker is still so young.
Altidore was a teenage star with the New York Red Bulls and scored against Mexico in his first start to the national team, making good on the considerable hype surrounding him after a sterling youth career. But once the hype of a big money move to Villarreal died down, concern set in as he failed to get much playing time for the Yellow Submarine and even when loans did get him on the field, he was unimpressive.
It got so bad that Villarreal let him leave on a free transfer despite him still being under contract for three more years. They just wanted to get rid of him and when he signed with AZ Alkmaar before last season, they finally were.
Altidore had reached a low point, but his move to AZ proved to be a godsend. He deconstructed his game and started anew, as Altidore told Leander Schaerlaeckens in FOX's piece on the ups and downs of Altidore's still-young career.
We spend a lot of time in training just getting better at our trades and that’s different from around the world. But we work on the little things: timing, how to time your runs off the winger, whether to cut to the first post or second post.
I’ve become more of a target man. It’s a lot of tactical things I’m learning. The more I learn the more I find out I don’t know. You have to learn to move off the ball. I had no clue about that. Soccer today is played in a 50-yard radius. It’s not like one team is at one end line and the other is at the other end line. You have to move from side to side and create space for others.
The improvement Altidore has made is remarkable, and his Eredivisie-leading eight goals this season is proof of the work Altidore putting in paying off. He's a more well-rounded player who doesn't rely solely on his athleticism anymore.
In addition to the plaudits for his improvement, Altidore deserves credit for being willing to break his game down. Many players would resist such an overhaul, especially when he is still a national team member, and taking a step or two back takes incredible self-belief and commitment, but Altidore did it.
Now Altidore is reaping the rewards of his risk. He may have gone backwards when he got to AZ and started over, but he has taken four, five and six steps forward since.
But Altidore's transformation is only part of the story. As important is the steps he still needs to take and that is directly related to how much work he is willing to put in.
Once maligned for being lazy, fairly or unfairly, Altidore has erased that label at AZ, as Schaerlaeckens detailed. But Altidore is still not making the most of his talent or pushing himself as much as he could.
Altidore's shortcomings are still evident with the national team, where he has struggled to hold a starting place since Jurgen Klinsmann took over. Klinsmann expects a lot of his player and a top-notch work rate, as well as the fitness to be able to play at a high pace for 90 minutes is vital. Right now, Altidore isn't putting in enough work for the U.S., as Klinsmann alluded to in his interview with Doug McIntyre.
Yes, you always want people to feed your strikers who are good at finishing, but on the other hand, when teams are locked in, you have to work, work, work and force your luck, and sooner or later you'll get rewarded for that. I think Jozy can do a lot better, and he knows that.
The problem is that even if Altidore committed himself to working as hard as Klinsmann wants when he puts on the U.S. shirt, he can't do it for 90 minutes because he isn't fit enough to. That is going to keep him on the bench as long as Klinsmann has someone like Herculez Gomez, whose workrate and fitness is second to none.
Altidore has done well to transform his game at AZ and is certainly working harder, but he does not put in the top notch effort even for his club because the Eredivisie doesn't demand it. Few players play a full, hard 90 minutes in the league, Altidore included.
That especially shows itself in the league's defending, which is often lackadaisical. It is defending that Altidore has torn apart, but that isn't the defending he faces at the international level. That step up in defending alone requires additional work. Toss in what Klinsmann expects and the level of work expected goes well up.
Altidore's game has grown by leaps and bounds. He has gone through more than almost any other 22-year-old and to ride so high, fall so low and then start from scratch to resurrect his career is amazing, but it is only part of the story. The rest of the story is where Altidore is going and right now, where the striker goes is dependent on the work he puts in and how fit he is. Klinsmann has said as much, and he is watching.