Some of the finest strikers in soccer history have led the Dutch Eredivisie in scoring before going on to bigger things with better clubs in more glamorous leagues. Marco van Basten. Romario. Ronaldo. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Luis Suarez.
It's not really fair to mention Jozy Altidore in that company, yet that's where Altidore has put himself with 16 goals and counting for AZ Alkmaar this season. The 23-year-old American has a real shot at taking his place alongside those legends -- he's second in the Netherlands' golden shoe race after scoring last weekend -- and becoming the first American forward to top a European league.
Whether he pulls it off doesn't matter. Either way, it's clear that Altidore has outgrown Holland. With 41 goals in all competitions since transferring from Spain's Villarreal in 2011, the U.S. national team vet seems likely to move back to one of the continent's top circuits this summer -- not that he's taking anything for granted.
"I'm not really thinking about leaving at the moment," Altidore, who still has two years left on his contract with AZ, said in a phone interview Monday. "But if an opportunity does come, the biggest thing for me is to go to a place where I'll still develop. I don't think I'm the finished product yet."
It's a mature, honest self-assessment from a player whose polished response to racial taunting in a Dutch Cup game last month drew praise from all corners of the globe. It also showed that he's growing up. But Altidore also knows better than most how hard it can be to break in with a new club. He arrived at Villarreal as an 18-year-old in 2008, didn't play, and bounced around on loan to teams in Spain (Xerez), England (Hull City) and Turkey (Bursaspor) before finding a permanent home at AZ. With the 2014 World Cup on the horizon, his next step must be the right one.
"I think he has to be very careful," said former U.S. star and current ESPN analyst Alexi Lalas, when asked about Altidore's inevitable move. "Jozy needs service and he needs to be in a team that's not defending the majority of the time."
If there's any question about how a forward's fortunes depend on his surroundings, look no further than Altidore's performances with the national team. His two-season hot streak in the Netherlands has coincided with the longest drought -- Altidore's last goal for the Yanks came in November 2011 -- of his 53-cap U.S. career.
"When Jozy comes to the national team it's a different type of role," Lalas said. "Oftentimes he's isolated up top and doesn't have players around him -- it's just the way the system works."
So what league -- and more importantly, which club -- would be a good fit?
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