An American Giant in Athens?

No, this has nothing to do with an American tourist falling victim to a legendary creature in a European metropolis.

Rather, it’s the idea that a budding American soccer star might be taking his game to The City of the Violet Crown.

I’m talking, of course, about a young American striker.

I’m a talking about Jozy Altidore.

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At the tender age of 19, Jozy is anything but tender. A man-child, standing 6’1 and blessed with the frame of an NFL wide receiver, Altidore has used his abundant strength and speed to go from young MLS striker to the future of American soccer.

After a transfer to Spain’s Villareal, Jozy spent a rocky 2008\2009 season on loan at Xerez of the Spanish Segunda. After spending the summer starring in the United States’ improbable run to the Confederations Cup final, it appears that Jozy will again be on the move to a new team for the upcoming season.

The strongest possibility right now is that Altidore will be moving to Olympiacos, the legendary athletic club of Athens, Greece. Olympiacos is the reigning Greek Super League champion, and has a guaranteed spot in the upcoming edition of the Champions League.

Despite the prestige and allure of a club with history and status like Olympiacos, American fans have some strong reservations about Altidore’s possible move to such a strong team, rather than to a smaller, less competitive team in a smaller league.

Altidore is blessed with a myriad of physical gifts, so making a move to a tiny team in Belgium, or Spain’s Segunda, or Holland might not be the best place for him to grow as a striker. While he would definitely be playing consistently in those smaller leagues, there’s always the possibility that he continues to rely too heavily on his athletic gifts to succeed, rather than developing top-flight skills and abilities. In a league that features physical, stout defenses, Jozy wouldn’t be able to rest on his god-given laurels – he’d have to adapt and learn.

As much as we all love Jozy and are swooning over his future in the Red, White, and Blue shirt – it’s hard to ignore his lack of technical development in the last few years.

With New York, he burst on the MLS scene as a man-child. His speed and size belied his age, and he overcame older veterans with elite physical ability. Defenders were overwhelmed by Jozy’s combination of speed, size, and agility.

I’ve often said that the MLS is a league of athletes, where the fastest and biggest can dominate. Jeff Cunningham was a goal-scoring machine for years because of his world-class speed, but has barely even sniffed competitive action for the US National Team (10 call-ups since 2001). Guys like Nate Jaqua, Kenny Cooper, and Brian Ching have been scoring goals through sheer force for many years in MLS, making use of their physical presence in numerous ways. At the other end, hulking center-halves have often been preferred to all others. Until recently, the league was all about athleticism.

It’s this emphasis on athletic ability that made Jozy’s displays that much more impressive – he was using athleticism to dominate a league full of quality athletes.

While his striking skills have never been questioned – the kid can definitely finish with the best, both with foot and head – the rest of his skill-set has yet to catch up to his physical tools. He possesses a good understanding of his role as a striker, and can even play on the left side of the field quite effectively. It’s the technical parts of the game that still elude Altidore, as his first touch and ability to control the ball under pressure are still works in progress.

The Grecian Super League would not be kind to Jozy, as the rivalries are some of the fiercest in the world. The Hellenic fans are aggressively passionate, and the intensity of the Athenian matches is virtually unmatched across the globe. The experience gained in Athens could be crucial to developing the ability to perform under intense pressure and scrutiny.

More importantly, the Greek teams are notoriously stout in defense, typically with strong, physical defenders. It’s this particular trait of Greek football that would force Jozy’s game to evolve – he simply wouldn’t be able to rely on physical gifts alone. He would need to develop as a striker in such a way that his physical skills accentuate his technical abilities, rather than his speed and strength being his only tools.

Jozy has a steep learning curve, and a move to a strong defensive league could actually accelerate his development. Instead of worrying about Jozy’s scoring record, we should still be concerned with how Jozy is developing. Yes, he needs games just like everyone else, but it’s also important to remember that he’s still a young striker that needs good coaching and training more than anything.

It’s not a done deal that young Altidore is headed to Greece, but we should know soon about the impending deal.

If it does go through, the young American has a chance to become a Greek hero.

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One Response

  1. Good article.

    Too often fans want their American players to move to a big European club without considering whether that would be the best environment for their further development. Is the coaching staff really interested in developing the player? Will the player be able to adapt to the culture of the club and the country? Michael Owen scored 13 goals in 20 games for Real Madrid but was apparently quite homesick and his tenure was considered a failure. Jozy has shown himself to be culturally flexible but I would still rather he go to a team in Spain, England or Italy mostly because the reduced culture shock( language primarily) would be one less distraction.

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