The 50-year-old head coach is a strict disciplinarian but as two U.S. national team stars have learned, he can also hold the key to a successful career.Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley each arrived in the Netherlands with plenty of work to do.
In 2006, Bradley was 18, the youngest MLS player to ever be sold, and brought along massive expectations. Five years later Altidore was 21, and had just endured a nomadic string of loan spells, having failed to break through at Villarreal after a $10 million move from MLS as an 18-year-old.
Bradley spent just over two seasons with Heerenveen. During his time there, he established himself as a starter for club and country, and broke the record for most goals by an American in a European club season. His play in the Netherlands earned a transfer to Borussia Monchengladbach of the German Bundesliga.
Altidore has spent two seasons at AZ, during which he's evolved into one of the most dangerous scorers in the Eredivisie. Last season, he shattered that same goalscoring record Bradley earned, which had been subsequently broken by Clint Dempsey. He's now the subject of a bidding war by several clubs across Europe.
There is one constant in both of these stories. His name is Gertjan Verbeek.
Verbeek was an amateur boxer before becoming serious about soccer. He played a decade as a defender for Heerenveen before eventually being named head coach of his former club in 2004. Following stints with Feyenoord and Heracles, he assumed AZ's managerial position in 2010.
The 50-year-old is a teacher, a disciplinarian, a perfectionist, and a tactician. He's been called “all-business,” “no-nonsense,” and, oh yeah, “Rambo.”
“Once you see him smile, that doesn't happen too much,” AZ technical director and former U.S. international Earnie Stewart told Goal. “He smiles sometimes very shortly after the game if he's won a game, but then all of a sudden he starts thinking about all the things that went wrong and, 'How do I get better? How do I do that better?'”
Verbeek's never-ending search for improvement was part of what attracted Altidore in the summer of 2011, when he was in search of a new club. Before making his decision, Altidore consulted one of Verbeek's former pupils.
“I had spoken to Michael Bradley, it was right after the 2011 Gold Cup,” Altidore told Goal. “He just told me that he's a guy that's going to teach you a lot and he's a guy that likes players that hold themselves accountable and take their job seriously.”
More than anything, Altidore needed a place interested in his development as a player. In addition to his brief time at Villarreal, the striker played on loan with three teams in three different countries, hardly the controlled, homogenous environment needed for a young player to steadily grow.
At AZ, Altidore found that consistency, and a coach renowned for developing young players.
During his spell in charge of Heerenveen, Verbeek was vital in the growth of not just Bradley, but also players like Afonso Alves, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Danijel Pranjic, and Miralem Sulejmani, all of whom left the club in big-money transfers.
That trend has continued at AZ, with the likes of Adam Maher, Niklas Moisander, Nick Viergever and Altidore among others becoming top-caliber players under Verbeek's tutelage.
“He wants players to be just like himself,” Stewart said. “Once they come into the office, they have to know why they're coming, and what they need to do to get better every single day and once you do that, you show that to him, you're in a very good situation because then all of a sudden he's the best coach you can have.”
Early in his AZ career, Altidore found out just how much Verbeek tries to instill his own zealotry into his players.
“I remember when I first came in, I think he was trying to challenge me to a weightlifting competition.” Altidore recalls. “It was a funny moment because he was obviously doing all the exercises with me.
“He's a competitive guy. I think he wanted to see where I was at obviously physically, but also if I was anywhere near where he was. I think he saw that I'm not a weak link.”
The image of Verbeek going full-blooded into a fitness challenge with a player more than 25 years his junior won't be a surprise to those who've followed his coaching career, particularly his stint as manager of Feyenoord.
During a preseason training camp in the Austrian Alps, Verbeek's over-enthusiastic performance on a survival course and his propensity for push-up contests earned him the nicknames Rambo, Highlander, and Braveheart.
With a team full of veterans like Feyenoord, Verbeek's approach went over like a lead balloon. The coach is, at his best, a teacher and facilitator of talent. When Altidore arrived at AZ, he was just that: a talent, mostly unrealized, and in need of an advisor.
“I think he's been great for me,” Altidore says of Verbeek. “He always tries to be informative. He doesn't rush. If you have to spend an hour and-a-half on the training pitch going over one thing, he'll do it. I think he really takes pride in that, he enjoys teaching players.”
The Netherlands is a country known for producing technically proficient players, well-versed in all areas of the game. For a striker like Altidore, his move to the Eredivisie meant taking a few steps back before he was able to move forward.
“I believe in the U.S. things have a lot to do with statistics and a center forward is pretty much, if he doesn't score goals, he doesn't do well,” Stewart said. “In our books, that's not totally true.
“We put more emphasis on what he needs to do and how he needs to get there instead of 'You need to score goals,' because that's the second thing on the list.”
Altidore has also learned there's more to being a striker than scoring goals.
“I think that's what Holland did for me, it kind of exposed me to a lot of different things,” he said. “I was trained in free kicks, penalties, passing, heading, a lot of things that we didn't really do at a lot of clubs, and I think that made me a better all-around player.”
Two years after arriving at AZ, Altidore has turned from potential bust to potentially world-class. Somewhere, at some point, Verbeek will consider this fact and maybe for just a moment, it will bring a smile to his face.
Alex Labidou contributed additional reporting to this article
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