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Jun 7, 2008

Altidore's career set to take off in Europe

If it seems as if Jozy Altidore's meteoric rise from unknown teenage draft pick to reported $10 million man happened in a flash, it's because it did. How fast did it happen? Try 28 months.

Just 28 months ago, Altidore was a 16-year-old shaking hands with commissioner Don Garber at the 2006 MLS SuperDraft. His selection came in the second round, and didn't draw that much attention, but all you had to do was talk to Altidore on that day and you could sense that there was something special about him.

Today, Altidore is an 18-year-old walking on a path that no American player before him has walked. The target of a record transfer fee and a player seen as the future of the U.S. national team, Altidore's transfer to Villarreal was a move that made sense for all parties involved. Mainly because it made perfect sense for Altidore.

No, Altidore never really played a full MLS season (he played in 22 games in 2007, scoring nine goals), but he has shown everything you could want to see from a prospect his age. From the ability to score beautiful goals, to the seeming knack for stepping up his game in the biggest of matches, Altidore has the combination of confidence, ability and boundless potential that makes scouts drool and big clubs open their bank accounts. He showed enough to get Villarreal to break the bank, and now Altidore can put the pressure of auditioning for European clubs behind him and focus on playing soccer.

"There's a lot of relief now because that pressure factor is gone a little bit," Altidore said. "Now you can play without the worry that it's another audition."

Did he really prove himself enough to merit a record-breaking transfer fee? I'm not sure how much more he could have done. From his heroics at the 2007 U-20 World Cup, to his nine goals in 22 matches last season in MLS (a season during which he played with no real playmaker on his team), Altidore scored important goals and difficult goals, both with club and country, all before he even turned 18 last November. Since turning 18, Altidore has managed to score for the senior national team against arch-rival Mexico, help the Under-23 team qualify for the Olympics and lead the Red Bulls in scoring with three goals on a squad struggling mightily to score.

In other words, Altidore has proven plenty.

And yes, there have been concerns about Altidore's focus and developing bad habits, with several Red Bulls sources believing he had checked out mentally weeks ago, but the fact is he still an 18-year-old player who has just had a year like no other American his age ever had. Even if he has picked up some bad habits recently, Altidore won't have the luxury of slacking once he goes over to Spain. Whether he stays with Villarreal, or is loaned out to Recreativo Huelva as is being discussed, Altidore will need to step up his effort and fight for a starting job in a way he never really had to in MLS.

"I've said I wanted to get as good as I can because I wanted to compete for a roster spot," Altidore said, referring to the U.S. national team at the 2010 World Cup.. "I want to be in a place to be challenged on a daily basis."

Ultimately, that is why it was time for Altidore to leave. Not just because the transfer figure was big enough for MLS and Red Bull to accept, but because Altidore was ready for a new challenge and risked stagnating if he stayed in MLS much longer. He also risked falling further into the funk that befalls some players who become so distracted by the allure of moving to Europe that their form and effort are affected.

Is Spain the right fit for Altidore? It might not seem so considering no U.S. national team field player has ever played in Spain's first division, but he is actually very well suited for La Liga. Yes, he will struggle with the more sophisticated tactical approach to the game, and he will need time to adjust to the speed of play, but the league itself also plays to his strengths. The type of overly physical defending Altidore had to face on a regular basis in MLS, and would have faced in England, is not accepted in Spain, where referees are quick with cards and open play is encouraged.

Altidore will also benefit from playing with better talent around him, and presumably better service. It is impressive to consider how many of his goals with the Red Bulls were of his own creation, whether by a slaloming dribble, a powerful run through the defense or long-range blast. He hasn't exactly been overwhelmed with good service during his time with the Red Bulls and he isn't known for wasting many good chances when they come.

In other words, Altidore could hit the ground running in La Liga. There is little doubt that he will get the chance to see major minutes somewhere. Clubs don't generally pay big bucks to have new players gathering dust on the bench (unless your name is Chelsea that is), and Villarreal has a track record of buying young talents and finding them playing time at other clubs on loan. That type of arrangement just might be the perfect one to help Altidore make the transition from MLS to Europe.

"When you go to a new league it's not easy to adjust, especially for me going to a bit of a faster pace of a game over there," Altidore said. "At a club like Villarreal, which finished second in the league, it might be tough to get in there right away and contribute the way I want to, so that wouldn't be a bad idea. To go to a team where I could get some playing time and develop a little bit more so I'm ready to play those big games that they have."

And what of the Red Bulls? The club that drafted him and helped develop him over these past 28 months? The team was already in dire need of two to three players to bolster a thin squad. Now with Altidore gone, the list of needs just got longer, although now there are resources to make some of those acquisitions happy. As crazy as it might sound, the timing of the Altidore sale could help the Red Bulls, who will now have some more time to weight options and recruit new players than they would have if Altidore's sale hadn't gone down until later in the summer.

That won't offer much consolation to Red Bulls fans, who have watched young players leave for Europe before in Tim Howard and Michael Bradley. Altidore's departure stings more than those previous two. While Howard's move to Manchester United was seen as a true graduation after years of stellar service for the MetroStars, and Bradley's move came before fans ever really grew attached to him, Altidore played enough to make Red Bulls fans fall for him, and long enough to develop his own attachment for the club, but wasn't around enough for those fans to feel not cheated by his departure.

"I remember almost every game I've played for Red Bull," Altidore said. "I was watching this team when I was little, just because of where my family was and I'd visit all the time. I would say I'm going to play for this team one day.

"It was a goal of mine and I was able to achieve that," Altidore said. "Each game, whether there was 4,000 people or 66,000 people, they're all special moments for me."

That's how it goes in the world of professional soccer though. Just as Sporting Lisbon fans must feel as if they didn't get to see enough of Cristiano Ronaldo in green stripes, and Sao Paolo fans remember Kaka's two and a half seasons there as a successful but short spell, Red Bulls fans will have to deal with the loss and remember the great goals he scored, the joy that he brought during his time with the Red Bulls. Those fans will also realize that just because he's leaving doesn't mean they will stop rooting for him.

It is easy to forget that Altidore's career really is just beginning. He is only 18 and his club and national team careers are still in the early stages. For all he has already done, the hardest work is still to come. Even with that said, it is still scary to think how far he could go in the next two years considering how far he has just come in the past 28 months.

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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