American soccer's $10 million man is about to begin his Great Spanish Adventure.
Jozy Altidore starts preseason training on Monday at Villarreal, the La Liga powerhouse that purchased the 18-year-old striker for a U.S.-record $10 million from the New York Red Bulls last month. And with a couple weeks to acclimatize before he's expected to join the U.S. Olympic team, Altidore is hoping to make a good first impression on his new outfit.
"I'm just excited, man," Altidore told me this week from Bradenton, Fla., where he's been training at the International Performance Institute. "I can't wait to have my first training session and see what it's like playing European soccer."
For all the advances in American soccer over the last 15 years, the U.S. hasn't come close to producing a superstar field player on the European club stage. And while Altidore represents the latest hope of U.S. fans to achieve such greatness, it's worthwhile to put some things in perspective.
Yes, he's a major prospect who scored 18 goals in 48 games for the Red Bulls (and four goals in five games at last year's Under-20 World Cup), but he wasn't a transcendent player in Major League Soccer.
Yes, he scored a beauty for the U.S. senior team in a high-profile friendly against Mexico last February, but he still has only three caps and may or may not be a regular for the U.S. in the next round of World Cup qualifying, which starts next month.
And yes, he could play a big role in the Olympics, but he had a muted performance in the Olympic qualification tournament, scoring no goals in four games (three of them starts).
The good thing is that Altidore appears to be aware of all that -- and equally realistic and optimistic about what awaits him in Spain next season. When he signed with Villarreal, Spanish media reports speculated that he would be loaned out to a smaller team in La Liga like Recreativo Huelva so that he could get playing time. And while that's still a possibility -- the choice is up to ManuelPellegrini, Villarreal's Chilean coach -- it appears more likely now that Altidore will spend at least the first half of the season with Villarreal.
"If you work hard and do what's asked of you out of your position, then I think you can definitely get some minutes, but it won't be easy," Altidore says. "Hopefully I put in the work and the coach recognizes it and he puts me in the game. Any game."
Whether Villarreal is the ideal place for Altidore's development remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that he'll be surrounded by world-class talent every day in training. The Yellow Submarine is coming off its best finish ever in La Liga last season, taking second behind Real Madrid and earning an automatic Champions League berth. Its regulars include three members of Spain's Euro 2008 champion (Marcos Senna, Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila) and two World Cup winners (France's Robert Pirès and Brazil's Edmílson).
Pellegrini (who prefers a 4-4-2 formation) has at least three forwards above Altidore for now in the pecking order: Nihat Kahveci, the Turkish sniper who scored twice in Euro '08; Giuseppe Rossi, the New Jersey-born 21-year-old who has chosen to play for Italy (and is on the Azzurri's Olympic roster); and Guillermo Franco, the Argentine-born 31-year-old who has played internationally for Mexico.
That's some rare air for an 18-year-old like Altidore. Then again, it's not like he's being expected to produce results immediately or risk being labeled a bust. Villarreal has invested too much (that $10 million transfer fee) and signed Altidore for too long (a six-year contract) to make any instant judgments about his long-term future. What's more, Altidore shouldn't be under the kind of mega-pressure from the home fans that he would have faced at other top-of-the-table Spanish teams like Real Madrid or Barcelona.
"Their team has just started to be successful, so they're very good fans," Altidore says. "They're not as ruthless as others like Barcelona's booing their [own] play. They just want to see their team succeed. If they win they're happy. If they lose a close game they're happy still if their team gave a good effort. So it's nice to be around that for the beginning of your career and not just right away go into that hostile environment where you're forced even by the fans to play well or you'll hear from them."
"Also, this is a team," he continued. "That's the most important thing. It's not a bunch of individuals, and it doesn't rely on one guy to do everything. All the players get to win when they win."
But if Altidore does make a good first impression, it's possible that he could get some playing time in the near-term. Villarreal should have a heavy demand for forwards, not least because it has a packed schedule involving Champions League and because Nihat is out for up to four months after undergoing thigh surgery on June 28.
"The opportunity is there," says Altidore, who plans to have mother, Giselle, living with him at Villarreal this season. "It's up to me what I do with it, but it definitely looks like it's going to be there."
As for the Olympics -- an Under-23 tournament that allows each team three over-age players -- it's expected that Altidore (along with Freddy Adu, MichaelBradley and Maurice Edu) will be on coach PeterNowak's roster when it's released by the July 23 deadline. The question now is which three over-age players will be on the U.S. team. The roster is being kept under wraps, but from talking to several U.S. soccer insiders what I have learned is this:
• The U.S. will definitely name three over-age players (unlike, say, Italy, which included none).
• It's growing increasingly likely that Landon Donovan and Kasey Keller will not be among those names.
• It's growing extremely likely that 36-year-old forward Brian McBride (who's back in the U.S. and without a team for the moment) will be one of the over-age players on the U.S. roster.
"If we're both selected that would be awesome," says Altidore. "Brian's a superb player. He's probably been the best U.S. striker we've ever had in terms of target men, and I think he's one of the better ones in the world now at this point in his career."
The U.S. has a tough first-round group, opening against Japan and following that with games against the Netherlands and Nigeria. And it's looking like the tournament will have some star power. Argentina has announced a roster that includes Lionel Messi, Juan Román Riquelme and Sergio Agüero, while Brazil has announced a roster that includes Ronaldinho, Robinho, AlexandrePato, Anderson, Diego and Jô. (Some of their club teams have balked, however, and a club-vs.-country ruling by FIFA is expected this week.)
"You get excited to play against those players because they're the best players around the world," Altidore says. "So you have to test yourself and see how well you can do against them, and if you come away successful you feel good about yourself and your abilities. It's going to be tough, but I wouldn't be surprised if we did better than people thought. I just want to be on that roster. I'm waiting to see that roster come out and after that I'll be at ease."
Altidore got a preview whiff of some of that European star power last weekend in Houston, where he took part in the Free Kick Masters, a schlocky made-for-TV event that nevertheless allowed him to meet Ronaldinho, Messi and new Villarreal teammate Pirès in a relaxed setting. That alone was worth the trip, Altidore says.
Pirès filled Altidore in on life in Spain ("He said they eat dinner at 10 or 11 o'clock") and at Villarreal. Messi talked to Altidore about the Olympics, where La Pulga (the Flea) is playing for Argentina despite Barcelona's wishes to the contrary. ("He said his club is trying to keep him with fines and things like that, but he's going no matter what.")
And Ronaldinho? The Brazilian star and former Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos had some fun with the already-chiseled Altidore in the stadium tunnel before the event.
"Ronny, this kid thinks he's 18," Campos said in Spanish.
Ronaldinho looked Altidore up and down, shook his head and laughed.
"Jozy, they don't think you're 18," Pirès joked.
"But I'm 18!" came Altidore's reply.
"No way," said Ronaldinho in Spanish. "No way."
He was laughing as he said that, of course. And so was Altidore, who couldn't quite believe the whole thing was real. "These were guys I used to watch all the time on TV," he says. "Seeing them face-to-face was unbelievable."
Better get used to it, kid. This adventure's only beginning.