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Altidore weighs the European option

The 2007 MLS season has been over for less than a week, but it still isn't too early to think about which MLS stars will make the move abroad this offseason.

The likes of Clint Dempsey, Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride and Ryan Nelsen have departed MLS during the winter transfer season and this winter will feature some very difficult decisions for some of the league's marquee players. Red Bulls striker Jozy Altidore sits at the top of that list.

You always knew Altidore would eventually lead suitors to the league's door with his impressive combination of speed, size and finishing ability. You just didn't expect it to come so soon, with Real Madrid joining the chase just two weeks after Altidore's 18th birthday.

European clubs from Spain to England have seen enough and want Altidore as soon as the New Year's Day confetti starts to fly. The only problem is Altidore's current club, the Red Bulls, are in no hurry to sell its best young player and best American player. New York doesn't need the revenue from a transfer as badly as it needs a player who can help the team win games on the field and give it someone to market off the field.

Red Bulls managing director Marc de Grandpre had no qualms stating that Altidore was staying put when asked during last weekend's MLS Cup festivities in Washington.

"He's not going anywhere," de Grandpre said. "I've talked to Jozy and he knows he's a very important part of our future."

As true as that may be, what we don't know is whether the Red Bulls are an important part of Altidore's future. The U.S. U-20 star said all the right things in 2007 regarding his development and not wanting to rush things, but when asked directly about his European club aspirations in August, Altidore made it clear that he has Europe on his mind.

"I definitely went back and forth about it," Altidore said about considering a move to Europe. "There was a time when I said to myself that I'm not going to go there until I'm 21, when I'm more mature and able to take care of myself and live a life like that. But then again I thought about the soccer aspect. If I wait until I'm 21, there might be a big drop off there, so the younger the better.

"That's the way I see it now," Altidore said. "The quicker you can get there, the better. Even if it starts off tough, you can always adjust to it, especially if it's a team that needs you. It's all about timing."

Is Altidore ready? He already has the tools to produce on a higher level, but Altidore is coming off what is just his first full season of professional soccer. It wasn't even really a full season considering he made just 15 starts and played in 22 of 30 games because of U.S. U-20 commitments and injury.

Throw in the fact that Altidore played a handful of those matches on the left wing because Bruce Arena decided the best young striker in the country was somehow better-suited for a left flank role, and you have a young forward who has yet to play close to a full professional season at forward.

This is why Altidore should stay. A full 2008 season playing alongside MLS MVP runner-up Juan Pablo Angel will only help Altidore's game develop, and expected commitments with the U.S. Olympic and senior national team in 2008 would suddenly create more of a strain on his travel schedule if he were based in, say, Madrid, instead of New Jersey.

There are those who feel he should leave immediately, while his raw tools can still be honed by the quality coaching and competition of European Soccer. There is some merit to this argument except for the fact that his value is so high right now that only Europe's bigger clubs will have a realistic chance of coming up with a transfer figure the Red Bulls will agree to: bigger clubs where Altidore will get lost if he isn't completely prepared for the rigors of top-flight soccer.

If Altidore stays in the U.S., a full season as a starter in MLS isn't going to hurt his stock. In fact, a role on the U.S. senior national team looks more and more likely when World Cup qualifying begins next summer. With a starring role on the U.S. Olympic team also awaiting next fall, Altidore will have several chances to increase his stock in the next 12 months.

Altidore could leave in January, and if he does, he will certainly shatter the league's transfer fee record by at least double. However, he could still do that a year from now, when he will be much better-prepared to meet the challenge that awaits him in Europe.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.