For Jozy Altidore, the 2011/12 campaign was nothing short of a breakthrough. After scoring three goals in all competitions in as many seasons, the USA striker finally lived up to his billing as a potential star in the making, finding the target 15 times in 34 outings for AZ Alkmaar.
It was a superb showing from a player who opened his MLS account aged 16 and left to join Villarreal three years later in 2008, only to be loaned out to a trio of clubs. Now with his career firmly back on track, the man with strong Haitian roots spoke to FIFA.com about his recent renaissance.
“I’ve never been in a position as comfortable as I was with AZ this season,” explained Altidore, fresh from finishing seventh-highest scorer in the Eredivisie. “At Villarreal, Nilmar and Guiseppe Rossi were ahead of me, whereas here I’m able to play at last. I’d never really had the chance to express myself, but here I’ve got that and it changes everything.
"And even more so given that the team’s attacking philosophy helps the forwards to score. I’m surrounded by very good players, so I get good service and obviously it’s easier to gain confidence in those conditions. I’m at home with AZ.”
Altidore’s attachment to the Dutch club is not hard to understand, considering how long he has waited to justify his early move across the Atlantic. In fact, he was still a minor according to American law when he opted to leave the New York Red Bulls, having made his professional debut with the side in August 2006. The junior figure in the Red Bulls’ ranks, he quickly became a fan favourite and wrote his name in MLS history by becoming the youngest player to start and score in a play-off game at 17.
The following season, he racked up nine goals, and he added another three in eight matches in his final campaign before heading to Spain. When Villarreal handed over more than €7m for his services in June 2008, his was the biggest transfer fee paid to an MLS outfit – but it has taken him four years for him to begin proving his worth.
"I’ve improved so much since I first started in Europe,” said the 22-year-old, the first US international to score in the Spanish Liga. “I’m a lot more mature today and that’s crucial in terms of better understanding and reading the game.
"I’m lucky enough to have had great coaches to help me improve, like Manuel Pellegrini and Bruce Arena. I’ve been able to take advantage of each season to learn and heed the lessons, but it was when I finally had the chance to play that I was able to express myself.”
Altidore’s trajectory on the international stage has better reflected his constant evolution, the forward representing the Stars and Stripes at the 2005 FIFA U-17 World Cup 2005 and FIFA U-20 World Cup 2007 before featuring in the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament in 2008.
Promotion to the senior team did not faze him either, and he found the net in the 2-0 win against Spain in the semi-finals of FIFA Confederations Cup 2009, a year before appearing in all four of USA's games at the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. He even served up an assist for Michael Bradley in the match against Slovenia, and hopes to continue his steady progress under Jurgen Klinsmann.
A new era for the US
"He’s brought a lot of enthusiasm for football in the United States, which the country needs to keep moving forward,” said Altidore, who has served loan spells with Xerez and Hull City. “He’s giving us a different approach. It’s new for all of us, but he’s positive all the time and that’s important for the squad. His training sessions are very different from what we’ve known before. They’re more intense as well. We’re now doing two sessions a day during our get-togethers.”
Those methods clearly look to be bearing fruit, with Altidore and Co posting four consecutive wins since their loss to France on 11 November last year – including a convincing victory away against Italy. Two weeks before their first qualifier on the road to Brazil 2014 against Antigua and Barbuda, the US are focused on winning Group A and booking their ticket to the main event in the fourth round of preliminaries.
“Whether our opponents are well-known and prestigious or not, we’ve still got the same motivation,” explained Altidore. “It’s an immense privilege to wear the national shirt and we give everything, whoever our opponents are. There’ll be no superiority complex on our side; we know what we have to do. The first thing you need to succeed is the will.”