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May 30, 2008

Altidore struggling to handle early success

How much is too much for an 18-year-old soccer player to handle? We might be learning just how much from Jozy Altidore.

While most kids his age are concerned with things like prom pictures, yearbooks and high school graduation, Altidore is dealing with the type of attention few teenage American players before him have ever had to face. Whether it is being the subject of new transfer rumors on a regular basis, or being anointed as the future of American soccer with fans already penciling him into the starting lineup at the 2010 World Cup, you almost couldn't blame Altidore if he started buying into the hype.

According to some, this has begun to happen.

There are growing concerns that Altidore, labeled mature and humble by most peers and observers throughout his breakout year of 2007, is starting to get caught up in his own press clippings. A slow start and dip in form in MLS action had been attributed to fatigue, but insiders believe something else is going on.

"He hasn't been the same Jozy, something is different," a Red Bulls source said. "He's someone who would always work hard in practice and be willing to listen to people. He's definitely changed and you wonder if everything is just getting to his head."

When Altidore rejoined the Red Bulls this year after extensive national team duty and looked lethargic in practice, most observers believed it was the effects of a heavy schedule of activity over the past year. As the weeks and months have gone by, Altidore has looked more and more like a distracted player.

How could he not be? With clubs from Real Madrid to Villarreal to Newcastle being linked to him, and reports placing his price tag at what would be an MLS-record $10 million, Altidore has far more to think about than most MLS players, let alone most teenagers.

"He's a kid with a lot on his mind," said a source close to Altidore who requested anonymity. "You start hearing about clubs that want you, and about how good you are, and pretty soon you believe it and it affects how you train and how you play."

While such behavior might be understandable for someone Altidore's age, it still isn't acceptable for a pro athlete, regardless of age.

Depending on whom you ask, Altidore's focus and effort in training might have had more to do with his exclusion from the Red Bulls' starting lineup in last week's 5-1 loss to the Chicago Fire than any injury. Red Bulls head coach Juan Carlos Osorio would say only that the team's policy is that players who miss multiple days of training do not make the starting lineup.

"Everybody knows the rules on this team and the rules are if you want to play on Sunday then you have to train Thursday, Friday and Saturday," Osorio said. "That was not the case with Josmer, who had a problem with his ingrown toenails and he just didn't train and I didn't think it was appropriate for him to play."

Osorio also downplayed rumors that there is a growing rift between him and Altidore, with sources close to the team claiming that Osorio has been openly critical of Altidore's training habits and commitment to the team.

"There's absolutely no problems with Josmer," Osorio said. "I think he's very good player and I think his future is as bright as he wants it to be.

"When he is in good form and good shape he will be playing for us," Osorio said. "There is no question about that."

If Altidore is indeed falling victim to the distractions of an impending summer transfer, he wouldn't be the first MLS player to do so. Players ranging from Clint Mathis to Clint Dempsey to Freddy Adu have all seen their performance affected and form dip amidst transfer speculation and the distractions that come with being considered the next big thing in American soccer.

Altidore's dip in form doesn't appear to have gone unnoticed by U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, who has yet call in Altidore for any of the U.S. team's recent high-profile friendlies. While conflicts with his MLS schedule are part of the reason Altidore wasn't called in for the England or Spain friendlies, his form this MLS season is also a likely reason why he is expected to be called in for only the United States' friendly against Argentina at Giants Stadium on June 8.

So is Altidore letting the pressure of expectations and the glare of stardom distract him to the point of affecting his play? Or is he just an 18-year-old being an 18-year-old, rebelling and testing boundaries as he transitions from mature kid to grown man?

Ask most observers who know Altidore and they will bet on him maturing into a solid professional. There have been too many stories of teammates and coaches being impressed with his maturity, intelligence and respect for the game not to feel that this is just a passing phase.

The Red Bulls and the U.S. national team had better hope that's the case because there are enough stories of unfulfilled potential to fill any stadium in the world. If Altidore fails to live up to his potential because of ego or poor work ethic, it would be one of the true tragedies American soccer has ever seen.

How much is too much for an 18-year-old soccer player to handle? Here is hoping Jozy Altidore doesn't find out.

Game previews

Looking for storylines and subplots this week like we saw last week? Good luck.

There are no head coaches facing their former teams, or clubs returning to the city they left behind. There are just a bunch of intra-conference clashes that should give the Western Conference a chance to ease the talk that the East is significantly better.

The best matchup of the weekend could be the Crew-Chivas USA clash. The sides combined for seven goals the last time they met and should put on an entertaining show.

Saturday

Los Angeles Galaxy at Toronto FC

International call-ups, suspensions and injuries have turned this juicy matchup into a bit of a boring one. The Galaxy will be missing David Beckham (and probably Landon Donovan) while Toronto will be missing Amado Guevara, Carl Robinson, Laurent Robert and Greg Sutton. With both teams missing their key catalysts, look for a boring affair that even he packed house at BMO field won't help. Toronto FC 0, Galaxy 0.

New York Red Bulls at Houston Dynamo

The Dynamo returns from a three-game road trip (1-1-1) to face a Red Bulls squad looking to erase the memories of last weekend's 5-1 thrashing by the Chicago Fire. In the absence of Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Ching will look to feast on a Red Bulls defense that looked awful last week, but the Dynamo defense could struggle to contain Juan Pablo Angel and Jozy Altidore without the suspended Eddie Robinson. Dynamo 2, Red Bulls 1.

San Jose Earthquakes at Real Salt Lake

The Earthquakes will roll into Rice-Eccles Stadium confident after last week's upset win against Houston. Real Salt Lake is reeling after two straight losses. Sounds like San Jose can win right? Not so fast. Real Salt Lake has played much better at home than on the road and has the weapons to frustrate the Earthquakes defense. Real Salt Lake 2, Earthquakes 0.

Columbus Crew at Chivas USA

From a five-match winning streak to two-match winless streak, the Crew head West looking to recapture the momentum they lost last week. They face the same Chivas USA team they beat in a thrilling shootout last month. The goats are riding a two-match winning streak but will struggle to stop the Crew's high-powered attack. Crew 3, Chivas USA 2.

Sunday

FC Dallas at Colorado Rapids

Which Rapids team is going to show up this weekend? The one which has been tough at home all season, or the one that lost at home to Chivas USA last week. FC Dallas showed signs of life in last week's comeback win, but concerns about its defense remains. Look for Christian Gomez to make the difference and offset a strong game from Kenny Cooper. Rapids 2, FC Dallas 1.

Last Week: 4-2

Overall: 27-18-9 (27-27 without ties)

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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