Thursday, June 05, 2008

My take on Jozy's Spanish sojourn ...

Well, it must be said that it was always a foregone conclusion that the Red Bulls' Jozy Altidore (pictured above spending some quality time with Alex and Ben, two members of the Northfield, New Jersey Massive! TM, and also in action on the field) would end up in Europe sooner rather than later. With a nod to his Haitian heritage, he has the potential to be the finest American striker to ever play the game. The news that he garnered MLS an $8 million transfer fee (with add-ons potentially taking it past the $10 million mark), thus shattering what Fulham paid the league for Clint Dempsey, shows what Villarreal of Spain's famed La Liga think of his pedigree. Rumors aside that he will be loaned to Recreativo Huelva or even back to MLS, the reality is that Altidore is poised to be playing Champions League football in the matter of a few short months.
Yet, something nags at me about this transfer. There's no denying the fact that Altidore, at only 18 years of age, has time on his side when it comes to his potential to improve. And, it's also true that a player of his physicality might be able to take La Liga by storm. But, I always thought his game was more suited for England. Forget the language and culture barriers he will face -- and probably, manfully, in Spain. (And while I hesitate to paint any fan group with the proverbial broad brush, as it's always the vocal minority that grabs the headlines, the insular Spanish don't exactly cover themselves with glory when it comes to treating black players with respect.) I just don't think he has the ball skills to be a traditional No. 9 in Spain. A Raul he is not. He's more like a better-skilled version of West Ham's Carlton Cole. In the rough-and-tumble of the Premiership, Jozy could be a 12 to 15 goals-a-season player, given time. I just don't think he has enough cunning to set the world alight in Spain, where an innate understanding of the game and speed of thought count for more than the pace and power of the Prem.
Don't get me wrong -- I want the lad to succeed, and in a big way. Through my Red Bulls connections, I have had the chance to speak at length with him on three or four occasions, and you couldn't hope to meet a more humble, grounded footballer. But that's all about to change. The spotlight glare of Spain's notorious futbol press (like La Marca) will come down on the lad full blast, and 3 or 4 games without a goal in the Villarreal side will be dissected in a way he never experienced while playing for the Bulls. The question is, does he have a support group in place to help him handle it?
I trust four male friends who live in South Jersey on so many matters generally, and three of them happen to be raging soccer fans -- Sam Nutile, Dave Holak and Neil Holloway (Mike Lucey being the baseball god when it comes to the Phillies, although Nutile scores significant points there as well as the resident Yankees expert. And, I can't emphasize enough how open Mark Melhorn has been to the sport of soccer when it comes to being a 21st-century sports journalist. Kudos, sir!). 
So, Holak's opinions on his beloved La Liga matter to me. He follows La Liga -- and Real Madrid in particular, as evidenced by this blog -- with the same passion, critical eye and outright mania with which I immerse myself in West Ham and the English Premier League. Dave's simply just not sold on Jozy. Many times after a Red Bulls match during the last two seasons, he and I have talked in the parking lot about how he was so lazy to be caught offside so many times, how he goes through patches in games where he seems disinterested, how he fails to impose himself on lesser opponents ...
Dave, a full-blooded Real Madrid supporter, saw that there were initial reports of interest from Los Blancos in acquiring Altidore, but Jozy himself was always keen to join Barcelona, reportedly his favorite European club. After a recent Bulls match in which Altidore flattered to deceive, Dave said, "Barca are welcome to him!"
Yet, part of me just can't get out of my head that wonder goal he scored (with his own head!) v. Mexico on his full USA national team debut in Houston. His movement off the ball was sublime, and the finish was of undoubted class. Maybe, just maybe, Jozy, the American Wonder Kid, can make this happen in the land of tapas and siestas. We shall see.