Editorial Note: Welcome Peter Kelly to the Waking the Red team. Peter is yet another one of our writers who fell in love with the club during their 2-1 win over Columbus in 2013. Pretty sure 90 per cent of our staff were at that game, making up the entire crowd. At any rate he will bring statistical analysis and a strong knowledge of Major League Soccer to our staff.
On November 13th, 2015, Jozy Altidore lined up alongside Michael Bradley and their fellow countrymen, proceeding to lay an unholy smackdown upon St. Vincent & The Grenadines for a final score line of 6-1. Altidore scored twice.
This was the US Men's National Team (USMNT) at their best. They were unshaken by an early defensive lapse and quickly course-corrected. They moved the ball well and were inventive in their attack. St. Vincent & The Grenadines were small potatoes, but the margin of victory was significant.
Five days later, Altidore lined up alongside Bradley and their fellow countrymen and proceeded to underwhelm an entire nation, lucky to even finish level against a faster and more creative Trinidad & Tobago squad. T&T Head Coach Stephen Hart was furious in the closing minutes, knowing they could have easily stolen three points in a match that was theirs for the taking.
This was the USMNT at their worst, inaccurate in the passing game, lacking in spirit, and devoid of technical capability. T&T was stronger than the Grenadines, but what of it? This was too much. While Altidore may have been a positive for the States in that match, he wasn't able to do what great players do and put the team on his shoulders and earn a win.
I walked away from these two matches feeling that they were emblematic of Altidore's career arc on the whole. At times, prolifically productive. At times, stagnant, apathetic, and uninspired. Having acquired his services for a hefty fee, it's worth asking: just what has TFC wrought in Altidore, and should they keep it up?
Sunderland's Sore Spot
Altidore arrived in Toronto directly from Sunderland AFC in an exchange for Jermain Defoe. At the time, he was easily in the worst form of his life. These numbers are practically infamous by now, but to reiterate - In 42 Premier League appearances and in 52 total appearances, he scored only 3 times overall and only once in league play. Woof.
There is no way to spin that into a positive, really. Nonetheless, let's take a quick peak at Squawka's seasonal stats for those two dreadful years to see what we can see.
Squawka's Player Performance Score is a comprehensive rating that rates every single on-pitch action and algorithmically measures a player's ability to positively impact a game.
His first season wasn't great. With a Performance Score of -15, we're left to believe that the team would have been better off leaving him on the sideline (which they did for a number of matches).
Unfortunately for Sunderland, they had plenty of problems beyond the striker position, so this didn't really solve anything. The best one can say for Altidore in this year is that it looks like he wasn't playing stupidly, just ineffectively. His 63% shot accuracy includes 12 shots on target and 7 off. The thinking was there. But these were only 19 shots across 31 matches. Not enough production.
While 13/14 was a bad year, the next season was worse. Altidore's Performance Rating dipped to -49 for the first half of the season (before he was traded). Don't let the shot accuracy fool you, either. The 67% mark comprises only 3 shots - 2 on target, 1 off.
Gus Poyet had only taken the team over the season prior, so change was imminent with a manager keen to correct, especially for a slumping Jozy. After 11 goalless appearances, he was sent to Canada in January.
Was it Always Like This?
After such a notorious spell, it's easy to forget all that preceded Sunderland. Those years were so abysmal that it seems to have reset fans' collective memories, now the only relevant historical mark in his career. However, Altidore's start in the world of professional soccer began emphatically.
He was signed in 2006, the 17th pick in a 2006 MLS SuperDraft draft class that included MLS contemporaries Kei Kamara and Dominic Oduro. 28 days before his 17th birthday, Altidore of the New York Red Bulls set an MLS record by becoming the youngest player to score a playoff goal in league history. He beat out Demarcus Beasley by about 3 years. Not for nothing, but the goal also happened to be a beauty.
All in all, Jozy's first three years in MLS were productive, indeed. In 41 matches, Jozy netted 17 goals. For a fully-formed striker, especially in MLS, this would be a decent stat line. For a young newcomer? It was salivating. Fans dreamt of Jozy's future contribution to the USMNT and his potential talent ceiling, which looked limitless. Assuming, of course, that he could get some European playing time.
Well, La Liga came calling. Sort of, anyway. Jozy was signed by Spanish side Villareal for a then-record transfer fee for an MLS player of roughly $10m. Villareal, however, spent most of Jozy's time loaning him out to teams like Xerez (Spain), Buraspor (Turkey), and perhaps most notably, Hull City (England).
There isn't much to write home about at this point in his career. Sure, Jozy was getting his feet wet in more difficult markets, but he was a stranger in strange lands without much job consistency and his performance suffered.
As would come to define his career in later years, fans were often left feeling like he had all the tools to score wildly, but something just wasn't clicking right. Fairly or unfairly, his stock dropped and off he went.
The Dutchman Cometh
Everything changes the minute Jozy gets to AZ Alkmaar.
In Jozy's first Eredivisie campaign, he put the ball in the back of the net 22 times across all competitions, tied for 7th in league goals scored. He helped keep the team's title chances afloat. That's an awfully nice debut.
Check out some of the highlights in the video above. You'll see so much of what came to define Jozy's play-style.
Look at 1:37. His deft, small touch on a brilliant give-and-go gave him plenty of space to beat the keeper behind a confused defensive line.
Check out 2:14. There's Altidore smashing the ball at impossible angles, a situation in which many other strikers would look to pass inside the box, but Jozy goes full badass to drive the ball around the keeper.
I could go on.
The full scope of Jozy Altidore's potential was reignited and redefined during these two years. He even picked up some club hardware (Dutch Cup, KNVB Cup). The ceiling was, once again, limitless.
So Which One is It?
As I see it, there are three ways of looking at Altidore's historical trend in quality.
1. Altidore's time at AZ was an outlier amongst a career of underperformance and everyone are only so high on him because of his promising career start and the unfairly high expectations of US players who play abroad.
2. Altidore's time at Sunderland was the true outlier, a nexus of suck that completely derailed an otherwise developing and promising American striker
3. Jozy's always been... well... Jozy. The perceived fluctuations in his career have way more to do with team circumstance and the context around him rather than major shifts in the quality of his game
Consider the historical stats from WhoScored. Inclusive of Altidore's time at Villareal, Hull, Sunderland, and TFC, his individual Player Rating has stayed within the 6-7 range, finishing at 6.8 this past year. Stagnant, right? Well... Sure. But we're totally neglecting his two wonderful years at AZ AND his first 3 years in MLS. We don't have that 1-to-1 data to compare, but I'm thinking he'd rank a lot higher.
The truth, I'd argue, is somewhere between Jozy-always-gonna-Jozy and Jozy-just-keeps-rising.
Yes, he has some bad habits - he doesn't exactly bust his ass to get to the loose ball - and despite his calm and charming interview demeanour, it seems he can get a bit prickly on the field. There are legitimate criticisms of his play-style, too. For a man of his stature, he doesn't often use his size to his advantage.
But it would be a mistake to claim we've seen the end of the road for Altidore's development. In Holland, he was placed on one of the strongest clubs in the league with a great deal of stability when compared to his many loan spells at Villareal. Sunderland may be many things, but "stable" doesn't quite come top of mind. While he may have failed to make the best of a bad situation, it's clear that the toxicity of the club only spiralled until it became too much to bear. All this isn't even to mention the parallel successes he had with the UMSNT.
Keen to make a fresh start, he arrived in Toronto.
Once Again, For the Reds
So. TFC. 2015.
How'd he do, again?
Well this looks a bit better.
Lest we forget - Altidore was either hurt or hurting for a good portion of the year, having re-aggravated a leg injury during USMNT play. Given that, a Squawka Performance Score of 350, sharing the attack with Sebastian Giovinco (who, it should be said, had a PS of 1,746, which is clinically insane) is still impressive. 13 goals in 26 appearances? A goal every other match is still impressive.
As the season wore on, that spotlight on Seba became crucial. When Jozy and Seba debuted, Vanney played them in conjunction with one another: Seba created the chances, Jozy knocked them down. For a hot second, it even worked! And then Seba got red hot. Everything changed then. "Get Seba the ball" became a rallying cry even Jozy couldn't ignore.
All this - ALL this - I bring up with good reason. When TFC were unceremoniously dumped from the playoffs, many a troll bemoaned Jozy's high cost and DP spot. There's reason to be had there. But it's still based on a false narrative - that of Altidore, The Man Who Already Peaked.
I see this as a man who just emerged from a bomb shelter to find that, miraculously, after four decades waiting out nuclear winter, his muscles hadn't atrophied and he could still do the things he used to do. This year was a player getting back on the path from which he was prematurely booted. This year, Altidore put behind him a time of great personal and professional difficulty to rediscover the kind of player he was always going to be - not the saviour of US football, nor the greatest MLS player of all time - but a strange and talented kid with even more room to grow.
That's worth the DP, the investment, and another year to watch the show in my book.