American soccer has two strikers named Jozy Altidore.
There is the one employed 25 miles north of Amsterdam who this spring set the scoring record for a U.S. player in Europe, lifted the Dutch Cup and caught the eye of supreme clubs.
Then there is the one who has stumbled with the national team for three years, who was snubbed by Coach Juergen Klinsmann last fall for substandard performances in games and practices, and who, in the eyes of U.S. supporters, remains a riddle.
At 23, Altidore is both celebrated and scrutinized like few other U.S. players ever.
With the World Cup a year away and qualification far from assured, a familiar topic has resurfaced in American soccer circles: Will Altidore ever score for his country like he does for his club?
Altidore and the U.S. squad will continue their journey toward Brazil with a friendly against Germany on Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium — the last tuneup before three critical regional qualifiers in the space of 12 days.
Altidore has scored 13 times in 56 U.S. matches, but 10 goals came between 2008 and 2010. He has not recorded a goal since late 2011 — and it was his only one in his past 18 appearances. His current rut has lasted 640 minutes over 11-plus games.
“Man, I have been dealing with criticism from people since I was 16 years old,” he said. “I am so used to it, it just doesn’t bother me anymore. I understand what I need to do.”
Altidore has had to deal with increasing criticism because of the striking dichotomy between his scoring rate for AZ Alkmaar, a middling team in the Dutch Eredivisie, and the national team.
In the Netherlands this season, Altidore scored 23 goals in 33 league matches and added eight in domestic cup competition. Clint Dempsey held the previous record for goals by an American in Europe, posting 23 overall for English club Fulham in 2011-12.
Altidore finished fourth on the league scoring charts. The Dutch circuit is not as strong as its counterparts in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Nonetheless, only eight players from those leagues recorded more goals than Altidore.
It took several years and several moves to make his mark overseas. After the New York Red Bulls sold him to Spain’s Villarreal for an MLS-record $10 million in June 2008, Altidore bounced among teams in Spain, England and Turkey and managed just six goals in 62 games.
In September 2011, Alkmaar purchased his contract from Villarreal for $3 million. He responded with 19 goals across all competitions.
On the U.S. front, however, Altidore struggled to maintain his form.
Klinsmann omitted him from the roster before the final two semifinal-round qualifiers last fall, citing transgressions over an extended period. The message got through, and Altidore returned a month later for a friendly.
“He deserves a big compliment but he is still going through a maturing curve, on the field and off the field, and our job is to get him to an international, consistent level,” Klinsmann said in February. “We don’t expect him to be perfect.”
Although he was back in Klinsmann’s good graces, goals have remained elusive. He did not score in three qualifiers this year nor in a friendly against Belgium on Wednesday in Cleveland. He left the game against Belgium at halftime with an illness and still was recovering Friday, but is expected to play Sunday.
“He knows there are going to be times when there’s not as many chances coming and when we're going to rely on his ability to run and fight and be a presence and a handful,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “At the same time, it's up to us to make sure we’re still finding him in good areas and making sure we're getting him the ball in spots that he’s dangerous.”
Altidore’s scoring issues lie, in large extent, to different systems utilized by Alkmaar and the U.S. team. While the Dutch club starts two or three forwards, Klinsmann will, at times, appoint Altidore as the lone striker.
At Alkmaar, Altidore also benefits from reliable setup men, such as Adam Maher, an English Premier League target this summer. The U.S. squad lacks a natural playmaker, and without Landon Donovan in the mix, there has been a creative void. (Donovan recently returned to MLS after a leave of absence and last appeared in a U.S. uniform last August.)
“I look at Jozy, more so than picking on him, it’s figuring out who should be around him,” said former U.S. forward Eric Wynalda, a Fox Soccer analyst. “We don’t have the right three or four guys going forward and haven’t given him time to figure out the guy around him.
“You make that assumption he will make that leap” from club scoring ace to consistent national team scorer. “He has found a happy place at AZ. He doesn’t seem comfortable with the U.S. team — the way he reacts and responds.”
Altidore acknowledges he is trying to adapt to Klinsmann’s system and demands.
“The last World Cup cycle [under coach Bob Bradley], we were a little more comfortable,” he said. “Klinsmann is all about stepping out of the comfort zone and finding something new and reaching a new height. It’s a great challenge for us, for me, and hopefully we can find it and be successful.”