By Alex Labidou
The two goals scored by AZ's Jozy Altidore against fellow Eredivisie title-chasers Heerenveen on Sunday says a lot about the young forward.
It's not only because at nine league goals he is now tied as the team's leading scorer with star midfielder Rasmus Elm despite playing fewer games. It shows just how resolute the American's character is.
The former New York Red Bulls prodigy had endured another week of harsh criticism from American fans after his club's head coach Gertjan Veerbeek told reporters that Altidore wasn't starting due to a lack of progress in training. It appeared to be more of the same from Altidore, who has left his followers waiting for a breakout season in Europe.
The frustrations grew even more after his form dipped following a hot start that saw him score seven goals in his first nine appearances this season. Altidore urges fans to be patient, as he is only 22 after all.
"It can feel like forever [for fans]," Altidore told Goal.com. "Of course, people forget how old you are. I think part of it is as players everything we do is put in the news. People become annoyed with you in a way when they are always reading about you."
Over-exposure has been a problem for talented young American soccer players. The minute a player shows a glimpse of talent, he becomes the next big thing for a country that's looking to build its national team. It has plagued talents like Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan. It now also follows New York's Juan Agudelo, who at 19 is already heralded by ESPN in a three-minute montage as the greatest forward that has ever been produced stateside.
Media overhype is a byproduct of the American sports scene. LeBron James, Felix Hernandez and Sydney Crosby were all picked at a very young age to become greats in their respective sports and each has more than lived up to the expectations. Soccer works very differently.
A player's performance is based on circumstances. You can count on one hand the players who have transcended the team-oriented nature of the sport. In order to be successful, a player has to acclimatise to the playing style of a club, his team-mates, the culture of the city, the list goes on.
In Europe, most clubs prevent younger players from talking to the media with the hopes of not overwhelming them. While the Dutch Eredivisie is known for its high-scoring matches and technical style of play, many great strikers have struggled in their first year in the league.
Liverpool's Luis Suarez scored only 10 goals in his first year in the Netherlands with FC Groningen five years ago. The Uruguayan would eventually become one of the most-prolific marksman in the league's history, scoring an astonishing 81 goals in 110 appearances with Ajax. Twente's Luuk de Jong, who is currently being coveted by big clubs all over Europe, managed 12 goals last year in his first full season as a starter.
Furthermore, Verbeek is one of the few coaches in Holland known for being focussed on a defensive style of play. Even after the team shipped in three goals in a draw with Heerenveen, AZ have conceded just one more than Twente for the league's best defensive record.
"It's my first year at a new club, new league in a totally different system. It's a completely different way of doing things," said Altidore. "You always want to be better but so far, it's been OK."
As for Verbeek's views about Altidore's lacking progress, the striker explains that his coach likes to directly challenges his players.
"I think you really have to know him to understand where he's coming from," Altidore said. "I think a lot of times in America, people will see something and automatically think one way."
Altidore describes Verbeek as a trainer who respects maturity and doesn't like to repeat himself at all.
"He likes people that understand what's at stake," Altidore says.
Throughout the season, Altidore's role has changed, frequently alternating between starter and coming off from the bench. He admits that the uncertainty over his role is difficult to deal with but he understands his coach's methods.
"Of course, it's frustrating as a competitor," Altidore explains. "But if you know this manager, you know that he's very fair.
"We have three good strikers here, three guys who are young and good prospects for any club in any league. They work hard every day, just as hard as I do. If you're not playing to the point where you're untouchable then he's going to give a chance to someone else. Because [in his mind], they are working just as hard."
Altidore added: "Me and [Verbeek], I don't think we have any problems."
But Altidore still makes it very clear that he wants to be the first-choice option for AZ.
"When you're playing with talented players sometime you have to hold your head up and give your team-mates a round of applause and try to fight for your spot back," he said.
Problems or not, Altidore and Verbeek have led AZ to one of their strongest seasons in club history. With 11 league matches left, AZ are only two points away from league leaders PSV. The team are also in contention for the KNVB Beker and the Europa League, even if they face a daunting task in the latter competition with Serie A side Udinese up next in the last 16.
Some have questioned Altidore's measured demeanor towards his development, but the New Jersey native remembers a conversation that he had with his mentor at the Red Bulls, Juan Pablo Angel. When Altidore's move to Villarreal had became official, Angel told the then 18-year-old to not expect immediate results.
"The first thing he told me was, 'It's going to be a process, Jozy. You're not going to go there and have success [right away]. It's going to be kind of how it was with the Red Bulls. You're going to have to wait for a few years until you get a chance to show your ability,'" Altidore said.
"I knew that but the expectation of the people supporting me wasn't that. They wanted instant success. So in that regard, I took the hard times and kept on trying to move forward."
Moving forward, Altidore focusses on enjoying the career he has. He has acclimated to living in Alkmaar, living in Center City and boasting that he can even speak a bit of Dutch before shying away when asked to prove it. It is obvious that he remains confident.
Asked to grade his own progress, Altidore's answer shows that he clearly still expects much more.
"I give myself a 6.5 or 7," he responds. "A 10 is you're playing for one of the best clubs in the world. That's certainly not the case but I definitely think I have a lot of room to grow."
Write off Altidore at your own peril. He still has plenty of time.
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