(Baggiesboy, ever the exotic bon vivant of football, files his post today from that metropolis of modern soccer… East Rutherford, New Jersey. -L)
A room with a view is the hotel guest’s common request. But there are views and then there are views. For every ocean vista, klieg-light-lit landmark, and alpine pasture bathed in moonlight, there is the airport hotel panorama. From my current 15th floor perch I have a view of Giants Stadium, along with clogged transportation arteries, both on the ground and in the air.
Opening Day is in the air here as well. After a rain delay on Monday, ‘Play Ballâ€ echoed around Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. Mr. Met emerges from his winter hibernation next week. (Here’s a little known fact: when Mr. Met sees his shadow at the Shea home opener, the Mets make the playoffs.) And this Saturday, the most exciting prospect in the history of Major League Soccer takes to the field across the street from my temporary aerie in the season opener for the Red Bulls. Yes, Jozy Altidore is that good.
My criteria for assessing a players’ skill is simple: would I buy a ticket to watch him or her play? In the case of Altidore, the answer is a resounding yes. He’s big, fast, intimidating and has the happy knack of scoring goals from all angles. He also has an infectious joy for the game. This kid loves soccer, and it shows.
In another age, when ‘a fine lady upon a white horseâ€ was the only person who had music wherever she went, PelÃ© was spreading love in these parts. But those halcyon days are long gone. During the MetroStars/Red Bulls 13-year run in Sopranos country there has not been much joy in ‘Swampville.â€ American soccer renegade Clint Mathis scored the 2001 MLS Goal of the Season, Senegal’s vowel laden striker Mamadou Diallo produced a four-goal game, and the inspirational Tim Howard regularly displayed reflexes worthy of his then Meadowlands Sports Complex NHL counterpart Martin Brodeur before moving to the Premiership.
Granted there was Bulgaria’s Jordan Letchkov scoring a late goal to knock Germany out of the 1994 World Cup. A moment of bliss that should have served as a hint to Lothar Matthaus that perhaps East Rutherford was not the place for him (then again, perhaps he was getting mixed signals having scored Germany’s lone goal in that game.) Of course, Matthaus isn’t the only World Cup winner to grace the cavernous Giants Stadium locker rooms with his presence. Frenchman Youri Djorkaeff swapped the charms of Bolton, Lancashire for the Soccer Eden of the Garden State. He didn’t come close to leading either the MetroStars or the Red Bulls to MLS Cup nirvana. Of course, every MetroBull artist from Joe Addo to Craig Ziadie shares that distinction as well.
But perhaps this year it will be different. With a new coach, Juan Carlos Osorio, on the bench (the franchise’s 11th head coach, which although it might match the number of players on the field seems excessive when considering that Joe Girardi is only the second Yankees manager in the same period), the Red Bulls have the best strike tandem in MLS. Juan Pablo Angel scored 19 goals in 24 games last season and seems motivated to meet that standard again.
And then there’s Altidore, the face of the franchise. He is featured on a series of billboards around Manhattan, as well as the cover of the North American version of EA Sports FIFA08. Throw in his Adidas commercial, and it’s clear that the teenager is well on the road to sharing a priceless advertising moment with the aforementioned PelÃ©. Of course, Altidore’s prospective U.S. Olympic teammate Freddy Adu already has pitched with PelÃ©, but he doesn’t have anywhere near Altidore’s game. Yes, he has plenty of moves but no pace, no acceleration and even less sense of teamwork. His success had been limited to age-restricted tournaments. Altidore has already made his mark among the big boys.
In 2006, his arrival sparked the Red Bulls to a late playoffs surge. Last year, he scored 9 MLS goals and soaked up information from a professional goal scorer in Angel. A quick payoff for that season’s long tutorial came in February with his first goal for the U.S. national team: a classic power header, scored against arch-rival Mexico. Only the top strikers put those away.
Needless to say, rumors of his imminent departure are rife, which would be a huge mistake for MLS, the Red Bulls and the player himself. If the team’s eponymous Austrian owners can invest in Oscar Echeverry then they can energize American soccer by signing the country’s best young player through the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
From where I’m sitting you can’t see a Red Bull sign (or any sign that Saturday is the team’s season kickoff), but a new stadium is on the way. The Red Bulls have been flying under the radar in the Newark flight path for too long. But this season, starting on Saturday against Columbus, Altidore can give the Red Bulls wings.