By Jason Kuenle

When Jozy Altidore first began to work his way into the USMNT, I along with most other observers thought he had the size, skills, and potential to play the role reserved for Brians McBride and Ching in the US player pool: target striker. His early scoring for the national team accentuated that persception. Header goals against Mexico and El Salvador combined with his finishes against Trinidad and Tobago to show a well-rounded striker, physical striker. The directness and physicality of his goal against Spain, was the height of this perception. A disappointing goal total during his stint at Hull was somewhat offset by the development of his hold-up play and his demonstrated ability to draw fouls and penalties. All of the pieces continue to be there, but in the past few weeks, I’ve seen and read a number of things that make me wonder if the lack of strikers in the US player pool has blinded us to who Jozy Altidore really is.

The primary impetus for reevaluting Altidore was this article. Particularly this quote: “Jozy, however, is still not an instinctual No. 9. He looked far more comfortable against Argentina and Paraguay drifting out to the flank than he did getting into the mix in the final third.” And then I started to put the pieces together. Altidore has seen time with five different senior teams: New York, USMNT, Hull City, Villareal, and Bursaspor. Running in chronological order and taking off the “Altidore = target striker” glasses, a sustained pattern appears.

When Jozy first began receiving playing time with New York, Bruce Arena used him basically as an inverted winger, letting him cut in from the left and take long distance shots on goal. When he did solidify his place in the top line for New York, he was partnered with a traditional number 9 in Juan Pablo Angel and allowed to play off Angel’s center forward position. From there, he moved to Villareal, where he received a couple of starts opposite Giuseppe Rossi and a few sub appearances before being loaned to Xerez, but more on Villareal in a bit.

At that time, Jozy began to make his push into the national team picture; first, in two “B” team starts in the semifinal round of qualifying after the US was assured of moving through. Then, as a sub against El Salvador and starter against T&T in the Hex, Altidore was very effective in combination with Brian Ching. As the summer of 2009 went on, he partnered with Charlie Davies. Again, he played in a role where he was free to drift out wide, with Donovan, Dempsey, and Bradley tending to fill that space by making runs from their midfield positions.

After a solid run in qualifying and the Confederations Cup, Jozy was loaned to Hull City where he featured opposite either Vennegoor or Fagan again playing in an off-center forward position. While he was working on his hold up play, this was because of the size of the space between Hull's strikers and their midfield even though he was generally receiving balls wider than a traditional target forward.

After the injuries to Davies, Altidore was partnered with Casey, Cunningham, and Findley, all of whom naturally act as more of a center forward than Jozy does. All of these players were basically pawns used to move defenders and create structure for Altidore, Donovan, Dempsey, and Bradley to take their most natural roles. With Jozy pulling one center back out wide, the other center back being disposed by the other forward, Donovan and Dempsey making diagonal runs from the wings, and Bradley entering the box just in time for a cut back pass or rebound from a shot.

This brings us to the current season. Altidore again started the year at Villareal seeing time in the Copa del Rey, Europa League, and La Liga. Villareal gave Jozy a slightly different look from the systems that he has been in, that can be described in the below quote from a recent Zonal Marking post: “The problem with facing Giuseppe Rossi and and Nilmar is that they make unusual runs, from inside to outside – if they’re tracked too far, it leaves the centre of the pitch completely open.” Now, if that is starting to familiar, it should. Even in arguably the first system that Altidore has played in where he has not been paired with a traditional center forward, Villareal’s system is still based on the types of runs that Jozy has been making throughout his career. Finally, over the winter transfer window, Jozy was loaned to Bursaspor, where he has been asked to truly play away from center as a right winger making the same runs from the opposite side as when he began his career in New York.

A retrospective focused on what position he has been asked to fill by his coaches, versus the position that USMNT fans want him to fill because of the current void in center forward, leads to different conclusions about his play. To make a parallel to MLS, and RSL specifically, Jozy has been repeatedly asked to field the role of Espindola, but is being judged on his performance filling the role of Saborio.

His hat-trick against T&T is a perfect example of what Altidore’s natural role is. On the first goal, Ching knocks a long-ball down for Donovan, who plays across to the back post run of Altidore. On the second, Ching makes a near post run to open space for Jozy who is coming in behind him. On his final goal, Altidore, despite being the only forward on at the time, is the fourth US player to enter the box and puts away the shot. In rewatching these highlights, I was reminded of the runs of Clint Dempsey. In dissecting their styles of play, the parallels only grew stronger.

Seeing the physicality of Dempsey as evidenced by leading Fulham in fouls suffered by 30 and the hacking that he took in the recent Paraguay match, reminded me of the foul drawing capacity that Altidore showed in his time at Hull. Both prefer to take people on through dribbling and neither are the playmaker off the pass that Donovan is. Though Altidore's heading ability is often questioned, he has put away his fair share of aerial chances on very similar runs to Dempsey. Their career goal and assist rates are not dissimilar, especially considering that Dempsey was in his first year of MLS at Jozy’s current age.

There is some divergence between the two, based largely on their routes to becoming the players that they are. Dempsey’s fitness and defending are better having been primarily a midfielder in his early career. Altidore’s hold-up play is better at his age for the opposite reason.

If Altidore and Dempsey are from similar molds, then it makes some sense why Bradley would be hesitant to start them up top together, opting instead for a center forward place holder. The question remains going forward; what is the best use of offensive talent up top for the US? With Jozy never being asked to take a center forward role at the club level, his development into that role with the national team will be unnatural and therefore slow, as evidenced by the games with Jozy as the lone striker. In a 4-2-3-1, playing Jozy on a wing with Donovan and Dempsey being the other two in that line makes some sense, but that continues to leave the question about the center forward position and further compresses a crowded and talented midfield. Charlie Davies return to fitness could be an answer to that first issue, as could the emergence of Teal Bunbury.

Jozy Altidore is probably not the short or long-term solution to the center forward problems of the US. This does not mean that he will not develop into a great player, nor does it mean that he should not have a place in the USMNT. It does mean that comparing him to center forward may be misguided. For better or for worse, a player’s development will be dictated much more by his club managers than his national team. With Jozy’s club managers not playing Jozy in a center forward position, it’s probably better to embrace the road that Altidore appears headed down. If Jozy does become the heir to Clint Dempsey, he will probably turn out a pretty nice career for himself.
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