August 26, 2009

The Start of the EPL and the Rise of a new American Star

As the Spanish La Liga season prepares to get under way, other leagues around the world have begun their 2009-2010 campaigns. Albeit only two weeks into the premiership’s season, a copious amount of storylines have already arisen. Burnley, who shocked the footballing world when they were not only promoted to the premiership but made an astonishing run in the Carling Cup, are on six points through three games including wins against champions Manchester United and Everton. After flirting with relegation for the first half of last season, Spurs are off to a perfect start after convincing wins against Liverpool and at West Ham and at Hull City. Could they be challengers to the top 4? Maybe, but I envision a fate very similar to that of Aston Villa last season. Tottenham will stick around the top of the table but the deep rosters and the deep pockets of the perennial four powers will usher Tottenham into Europa contention instead of a place in the Champions league. Elsewhere, Pompey seem destined for the championship, Liverpool has already matched its loss total of last year (two) through the first three games, while Chelsea’s early season form should make them favorites to contend in both England and Europe.
The United States national team experienced a summer of ups (victory against Spain and a run to the finals of the Confederation Cup) and downs (an embarrassing, albeit a young squad, loss against Mexico in New Jersey in the finals of the Gold Cup); nevertheless, it is in the play of a young American, trying to make a name for himself in the most prestigious league in the world, that may bring a new respect to American soccer. While soccer may help define the identity of many nations, the United States national team lacks just that, uniqueness. Landon Donovan, one would probably argue, is the current face of the team; however, with a sport trying to gain popularity nationally and a team trying to gain respect internationally, there could not be a worse man for the job. Forget his verbal clash with David Beckham, one of the worlds most recognized and respected footballers, earlier this year, Donovan’s combined thirteen career international caps only serve to exemplify assumptions that Americans cannot play abroad. Even with his success on the national level, Landon Donovan cannot be internationally respected because he has never performed on the more esteemed club level. Think of baseball’s home run king, technically it is Sadaharu Oh of the Nippon Professional Baseball League. While still a professional league, the talent pool does not compare to its American counterpart of Major League Baseball, much like a comparison of statistics between the MLS and the EPL would be ludicrous.
With that all being said, there is one American that has the potential to become the face of American soccer, a face that could bring a newfound respect for American soccer on an international stage. His name, Jozy Altidore. In 2008, a year after finishing second in La Liga, Villarreal bought the American striker’s rights from the New York Red Bulls. The opportunity had finally arrived for an American to be playing not only in one of the most prestigious leagues in the world but in European competition as well via the UEFA Champions League. Despite the fact that he was only capped six times, Altidore made an immediate impression when he scored in his third game after coming on as a substitute in the ninetieth minute and scoring seconds later (also becoming the first American to score in La Liga).
Altidore began his campaign as the new American soccer icon by being the poster boy for the most monumental international soccer victory in U.S. history during this summer’s Confederation Cup. His twenty-seventh minute strike past Iker Casillas, arguably the worlds best keeper, after strong-arming defender Joan Capdevila proved to be the eventual game winner. Then this past weekend, two months after the Americans shocked the European Champions and the world, Alitdore made his debut for Premiership side Hull City, on loan from his Spanish club. Coming on in the fifty-ninth minute a quick chip, over the back line to the eventual foot of Kamel Ghilas within a minute of coming on, proved to be the game winning assist. Can Jozy Alitdore change the world’s perspective of American soccer? Probably not alone but let us not forget there are a respectable number of other Americans playing abroad as well. Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Friedel (Aston Villa) are two premier keepers in the EPL while defender Oguchi Onyewu, recently signed with seven time European champion AC Milan. But it is the exposure that Altidore generates, not only in England but as a striker (who is more well-known Dani Alves or Fernando Torres? Fans love goals and Alitdore will score them) that could and will transform American soccer from an afterthought to a well-respected and feared contender.

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