Jozy Altidore is coming back to Major League Soccer, mostly likely to join Toronto FC, after 18 unproductive months at Sunderland. Somehow, the same striker who scored 51 goals in two seasons for AZ in the Netherlands only got his name inked onto Sunderland’s scoresheet three times in a season and a half.
The U.S. Men’s National Team striker is a much much better player than three goals in 18 months, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise—or, depending on how big they are, I’ll maybe just show them Altidore’s USMNT and AZ highlights.
So, what went wrong? Here are five things that definitely did not go Jozy Altidore’s way in England.
The manager who had enough faith in Altidore to send £8.5m of his transfer budget to AZ was fired by Sunderland just five games into the 2013-14 season. DiCanio’s replacement, Gus Poyet, always had encouraging things to say about Altidore, but made the pecking order pretty clear when he picked his first Sunderland team: Steven Fletcher started, Altidore was on the bench.
In Altidore’s fourth Premier League game for Sunderland, he shrugged off a foul by Bacary Sagna, accelerated away, sidefooted past Wojciech Szcz?sny, and celebrated making it 2-2. Except referee Martin Atkinson had, instead of letting Altidore play the advantage, blown for Sagna’s foul. Sunderland got a free kick instead of Altidore’s goal. Final result: 3-1 Arsenal, zero goals for Altidore.
Jonathan Wilson, the noted freelance soccer writer with a deep understanding of tactics and an even deeper love of Sunderland AFC, appeared on Major League Soccer’s Extra Time Radio podcast in 2014, and gave his take on why things weren’t going well for Altidore at the Stadium of Light. His observation was that Altidore thrives on crosses (watch the video above to see what he did with Graham Zusi’s service from the right for the USMNT in 2013) but Sunderland were using “inverted wingers,” who cut inside and shoot instead of delivering crosses. So with left-footed Adam Johnson cutting in from the right, and right-footed Emanuele Giaccherini cutting in from the left, no Sunderland player was going outside and crossing for Altidore.
Altidore is a skilled striker who works best with a partner—making smart runs and connecting passes at close range like has done with Clint Dempsey for the national team. He may be musclebound and and barrel-chested, but he’s not a battering ram. So sending Altidore on a solo mission up top and asking him to to do battle against an entire Premier League back four as if he was the Didier Drogba of the North-East was never going to work out for Sunderland or their striker.
I still have no doubts that Altidore has all the weapons to score goals in top European leagues. But once you get off to a bad start in the Premier League, you’re pretty much done for. Football fans and the football media will tear you to metaphorical pieces and give you nicknames like “Dozy,” and it doesn’t take long for your confidence to be in tatters. It’s happened to great players like Diego Forlan in the past and it will happen to plenty of promising young players in the future. The important thing is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go and score goals somewhere else. And Toronto seems as good a place as any …