Last Friday afternoon, anybody who was still following sports on the Internet and not grilling meat or relaxing at the beach was locked into one topic: Dwight Howard. Roughly around the same time, ESPN’s Marc Stein broke the news that American striker Jozy Altidore would move from AZ in the Netherlands to Sunderland of the Premier League in England for a fee estimated in the $9 million range. All that was left to complete on Monday was a medical.
Last week we wondered in this space if a move away from the free-scoring, defense-optional Dutch Eredivisie would be a good thing for Altidore ahead of the World Cup next June. He had clearly found a comfort level in Holland, scoring 31 times last season across all competitions and carried that form into the U.S. games in May and June — scoring in four straight matches.
As predicted, when the Sunderland news broke, U.S. fans on Twitter began to fret immediately, either on the basis of Altidore’s ill-fated loan spell at Hull City in the Premier League back in 2009-10 where he scored only once or because Sunderland is a middling club that narrowly staved off relegation and is managed by Paolo Di Canio, a man with strong opinions on fascism.
Take a deep breath and think about the move. It’s not something U.S. fans should worry too much about. For one, don’t dwell on the Hull City season for Altidore. Hull was awful that year, relegated after finishing 19th. The team famously mocked coach Phil Brown for dressing them down on the field at halftime during a loss to Manchester City and never got anything going all season, winning only six matches. The team’s leading-scorer that year was midfielder Stephen Hunt. Altidore was only 19 years old, and coming into an unsettled position in a new league with a club that was an odd collection of journeyman and misplaced parts.
At the moment Sunderland’s situation doesn’t look that much different than Hull’s in 2010, but Di Caino — forget his personal politics — is attempting to clean house from the underachieving, hard-drinking, heavily-British team he inherited. Dealing for Altidore appears to be one of the club’s top summer priorities and should give the Black Cats a genuine goal-scoring threat for the first time since they sent Darren Bent to Aston Villa in 2011. The club isn’t bringing him to northeast England to sit the bench.
Altidore immediately moves past Danny Graham and one-time uber-English prospect Connor Wickham in the pecking order at the Stadium of Light. There’s a solid chance he teams up with Stephen Fletcher up top to create a solid attack, though in this scenario Altidore would probably have to drop deeper as Fletcher is more of a poacher who scores most of his goals on headers up close.
Right now, with six weeks before the 2013-14 Premier League season begins it’s nearly impossible to speculate what the Sunderland lineup will look like other than it will be massively changed from what we saw last year, mainly under coach Martin O’Neill. Although there’s some trepidation, a wait-and-see approach for Di Caino is only fair especially since he took the job on March 31 and given about six weeks to stave off relegation.
And more than anything else, for all the talk about the Premier League being THE BEST LEAGUE IN THE WORLD, here are a couple guys who piled up double-digit goals last season: Rickie Lambert, Adam Le Fondre, Kevin Nolan, Fletcher and Arouna Koné, so to think Altidore is going to flop again based on what he did at Hull is foolish. Why a 23-year-old in the prime of his career and physical presence like Altidore won’t be able to adjust to the Premier League and its less than stellar defending doesn’t make sense.
With the nature of soccer, one strong season at Sunderland — where he figures to get amble playing time — could wind up with Altidore moving up the ladder in England. A move to one of the big boys like Manchester United, Manchester City or Chelsea probably isn’t in the cards, but a move upward to a “bigger” club isn’t out of the realm of possibility.
There doesn’t seem to be much downside for Altidore moving to Sunderland. Even if he struggles to adapt the odds are he doesn’t post another streak of nearly 18 months between international goals for the United States. American fans will be able to debate the ups-and-downs of every Altidore touch this season, too, considering all Sunderland games will be available via NBC’s Premier League plans.