This story is over 5 years old.


Jozy Altidore Was Never Going to be Great

The outsized expectations placed on Altidore are common to most any American soccer prospect and it's time that trend die an overdue death.
Image via Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Jozy Altidore exists as a series of dreams we have had about him. When it was announced the 25-year-old would return to MLS following an anonymous year-and-a-half stint with Sunderland, the public had finger-poking-you-in-the-chest opinions. Depending on whom you ask, Jozy has either given up on proving himself in Europe to chase fat domestic paychecks, or he's retreating to more familiar surroundings to regroup. He says, in perfect athlete-speak, that he's accepting a new challenge. All those sentiments get at the truth from different angles, but the first two are pitched at such loud volumes because Jozy Altidore's employment status has stood in, over the years, for Where American Soccer Is Today. The opportunities he's given and the choices he makes tend to take on an outsized importance. He's wrapped in the stars and stripes wherever he goes.


Read More: Radamel Falcao and the Broken Path to Stardom

This is strange because it's not as if Altidore has ever been America's best player. During the time he has spent in the USMNT, that distinction has belonged, at various points, to Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley. Altidore's nine appearances at Villarreal mark the full extent of his experience playing for a sizable European club, whereas Jermaine Jones appeared in 129 matches for Schalke, Howard has been a fixture at Everton since 2007, and Bradley started for both Borussia Monchengladbach and Roma. Hell, Steve Cherundolo was Hannover 96's first-choice right back for over a decade. The best club for which Jozy has ever excelled is AZ Alkmaar, in the striker's paradise that is the Eredivisie. It must be something other than accomplishment that has made him a focal point for American soccer fans.

Image via Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe it's our fascination with strikers, who always get more press than holding midfielders or fullbacks. Soccer is a difficult game to evaluate, but the guys who put the ball in the back of the net are the easiest to understand. They score, or they don't, and while their jobs are more complicated than that, as are the factors that lead to their failures and successes, our perception of them ultimately comes down to how many goals they collect. And they are frequently protagonists in a match's biggest moments. They're in space near the goal; they're running unmarked into the penalty box; they're one-on-one with the keeper. What they do when these opportunities arrive often determines the outcome of a game.

But Altidore hasn't been a goal- or memory-generating machine. The most famous strike of his career came in a minor tournament against Spain, a shot Iker Casillas probably should have saved. Jozy is not a particularly interesting interview, nor does he do anything notable off the pitch, nor has he been a Freddy Adu-esque flop. He became a symbol of American soccer strength (or lack thereof) on, what, the back of some not-half-bad performances as a teenager? That doesn't seem right.

That is, until you consider the degree to which American soccer fans invest their hope in players who show them anything resembling potential. Jozy is what he is because of what people allowed themselves to believe he would become. He was highly visible and young for seven years. We were made aware of his every triumph because it might have marked the beginning of his (imagined) meteoric rise. Now, as Altidore is hitting something like soccer player middle age, the hype is dwindling. Maybe he's not Raúl. He's not even Emile Heskey. It took us a long time to get here.

If you remove Altidore from the sweltering context in which he has carved out a career, he is just another mediocre striker in a world full of them. This is not such a bad thing to be. It turns out you can make $25 million slumming it in Toronto these days, or more accurately, in Altidore's case, playing in a league that more or less matches up with your ability level. The best thing to happen to him will not be scoring a bunch of goals in MLS, but being accepted for what he is. Altidore is a yeoman making a great living and slightly dissatisfactorily holding down the national team's starting striker spot. That is finally becoming clear to even the most starry-eyed among us. As Jozy recedes from symbol-hood, no one should take his place as the player who exhibits some late-teens/early-20s friskiness and becomes a tabula rasa upon which American soccer optimists project their fantasies, but here comes Julian Green; here comes DeAndre Yedlin; here comes Rubio Rubin. Alas.