Freddy Adu Struggles, Jozy Altidore Soars: A Tale Of Two American Wonderkids
It's not easy carrying the footballing hopes of a nation on your shoulders.
Just ask Freddy Adu.
The American forward, who is still only 19 years old, has been the great hope of U.S. football since he was picked first in the MLS Super Draft by D.C. United—more than five years ago.
Ever since the $1m contract he signed with Nike when just 13, the Ghanaian-born youngster has been the subject of unimaginable attention. Coping well, Adu acquitted himself admirably in the MLS, despite being half the age of many of his opponents.
As the performances got less outstanding for D.C. United (and later Real Salt Lake), many commentators around the world had already declared Adu a "bust," even before he could drive.
A move to Europe, and S.L. Benfica, was greeted with enthusiasm—finally this young lad would get the chance to prove himself at the top level. A reported $2m transfer fee illustrated the faith shown in him by his Portuguese club, and their coach Fernando Santos.
Despite starting brightly and impressing his new teammates, circumstances quickly began to work against Adu. Santos was sacked after the first game of the season, to be replaced by former Spain manager Jose Camacho.
Camacho was less impressed with Adu’s talents, and neglected to select him in the starting eleven. Adu was forced to watch proceedings from the bench, although Camacho was to leave the club barely six months after he joined, in March 2008.
Since then another manager, Fernando Chalana, has also been and gone. The club are now under the auspices of the highly-rated Spaniard, Quique Sanchez Flores
With all this turmoil, it was always unlikely that a teenager like Adu—especially one in an alien country—would be able to prosper. Unfortunately, it seems that Flores will not give him more time to assert himself at Benfica, as he has already sent the American on a season-long loan to French side AS Monaco.
Whether the American can find his feet in another unfamiliar country is something few would bet on. Monaco are not one of France’s top sides, and he will be lucky to get the time and space his qualities thrive on.
All of this has seen many commentators desert Adu, and frantically begin searching for the next young wonder to pin their hopes to.
That player appears to be Josmer “Jozy” Altidore.
The same age as Adu, Altidore already finds himself in the upper echelons of European football. His $10m transfer to Villarreal, perennial Champions League contenders, is a strong indication of the reputation he enjoys across the world.
Such a reputation has come primarily from his performances in the MLS. 15 goals in 37 appearances for New York Red Bulls was no mean return for a teenage striker, especially in a side that also boasted the talents of Juan Pablo Angel. Equally importantly however, the Haitian-American impressed everyone with his mental and physical adaptation to what can be an unforgiving league.
It was this physicality that convinced Villarreal to come calling. Unlike Adu, who is rather small and compact for his position, Altidore looks the prototypical European No. 9—tall (6”1’), strong and hard to dislodge from the ball.
Providing a threat in the air and on the deck, few scouts seriously believed he wouldn’t adapt to the European game.
Ultimately El Submarino Amarillo took the plunge, and crucially for Altidore they look to be a perfect fit for the 19-year old. Unlike Benfica, the club are extremely stable, and are pursuing a blueprint for success.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini is one of the most highly rated in the game, and is unlikely to leave the club in the short term. Tactically astute and a fine man-manager, he is the one individual most responsible for the club’s emergence as a La Liga powerhouse.
That the Chilean can attract the likes of Juan Roman Riquelme and Robert Pires is impressive, especially when you consider the town of Villarreal has a population of only 23,000.
With Pellegrini guiding him, Altidore will not be left to suffer. Undoubtedly, the Chilean already knows exactly what he wishes to do with the player—he always does.
He won’t throw him into the deep end straight away—the likes of Nihat Kahveci, Guillermo Franco, Guiseppe Rossi and Joseba Llorente will ensure Altidore does not get thrown in at the deep end.
But only Nihat is a first-team fixture (although Rossi is pushing him hard), and the little Turkish forward would no doubt find Altidore to be his perfect foil. The touch and guile of Nihat, coupled with the power and presence of Altidore, would constitute a classic “little ‘n’ large” partnership.
Once he adapts to the pace and technicality of the Spanish league, Altidore will get many chances to lead the line.
With the situation on the pitch looking good, the only other obstacle preventing Altidore being a success is the same thing that hindered Adu—the pressure of expectations.
As his coach at New York, Bruce Arena, noted in an interview with Reuters:
"The problem is always going to be how the press wants to blow things out of proportion every time a new kid comes along," he said. "He's still got a long way to go."
Yet even he couldn’t quite contain himself, when it came to American international’s talents:
"No other players look like him," he gushed. "There's speed combined with his physical qualities and a very good sense for goal. When he's facing a defender, he's very good going at him, which is kind of unusual for a player that size. You don't see those kind of qualities often."
Villarreal are certainly hoping so, but the pressure such comments bring could be too much for a player with the wrong mentality. Fortunately, it appears Altidore has exactly the right attitude:
"He's very mature, and I think it has to do with his upbringing," Arena commented. "He's very respectful around the adults in his life. More often than not, he's seen and not heard. He understands it. Some of the other young promising kids coming up have been their [own] greatest advocates. Jozy isn't. He just goes about his business and lets his play do the talking."
It looks likely, then, that Altidore will not fall into the trap of matching his expectations to the unrealistic ones of his loudest supporters. He will just put his head down, work hard and see what happens.
That is how all great players act. Pellegrini and Villarreal will do the rest.
Don’t go shouting it from the rooftops just yet, but Altidore looks like he has a genuine chance of becoming a European football heavyweight. Finally, American “soccer” might just have found the man to make the world sit up and take notice.
You can’t help but think that would do more for the game in North America than anything David Beckham could ever dream of.
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