Yesterday, news broke that perennial Premier League bottom feeders Sunderland had reached a swap deal with Major League Soccer. American striker Jozy Altidore is leaving Sunderland for MLS's Toronto FC. English striker Jermain Defoe, who just joined Toronto FC from Tottenham last summer, is going to Sunderland. The English side also threw in some cash to sweeten the deal. It's just the saddest goddamn thing. Altidore's homecoming after six and a half years abroad is not only a spectacular individual failure, but an indictment of American soccer.
It wasn't supposed to happen this way. Altidore's career began with great promise, and great hype. He was a prodigy. At 16, he was already nice to look at, and he was drafted by the MetroStars in the 2006 SuperDraft. The year after that, he made his first appearance on the United States Men's National Team. The year after that, he was sold to Villarreal, for more money than any American to ever play the sport. Then, he crashed out.
In three years at Villarreal, he was loaned out three times, to three different clubs in three separate countries. In that span, he scored a total of three league goals. He was still able to garner a starting place on the national team, though, and started all four games the USMNT played in the 2010 World Cup. He didn't score.
In 2011's summer transfer window, Dutch side AZ Alkmaar bought him from Villarreal. It was, in hindsight, the best possible move for Altidore's career. The Eredivisie, one of the highest-scoring leagues in Europe, is renowned for being a place where trash strikers go nuts, get sold, and then become trash again. At this point, Altidore, 6-foot-1 and built like my house, firmly qualified as a trash striker. In the Eredivisie, Jozy went nuts. Over two years, he scored 38 goals in 67 league games. In the 2013 summer transfer window, the 23-year-old was sold to Premier League side Sunderland. In 40 league appearances over the last 18 months, Altidore has scored once.
Altidore has been an undisputed starter on the national team, and it's here where he's made his name. The striker was a key part of the United States's 2014 World Cup push, and in 24 appearances over the past two years, he scored 12 goals. He scored in five straight matches at one point, and recorded a hat-trick in a comeback 4-3 win against Bosnia in August 2013:
He was still scoring when the Americans flew into Brazil last year. Then, in the opening game, Altidore fell with a popped hammy. He missed the rest of the tournament. He hasn't done jack shit since.
Altidore's return, then, is tragic. It's not just that the best American striker was laughed out of England. It's the context within which he was laughed out, and what it means for our domestic league.
Depending on whom and when you ask, MLS exists for one of two reasons. The first is to eventually become one of the top leagues in the world, with the ability to attract the best talent in the world so that, in time, the best soccer is played in North America. The second is to develop young talent by identifying kids as early as possible at the academy level, and providing them a place to face consistent quality competition as they get older.
Going into its 20th year, though, Major League Soccer remains a murky backwater. The league chiefly exists now as soccer's Ft. Lauderdale, an agreeable place where aging foreign stars escape once the sport has passed them by. MLS is where players like Frank Lampard, Robbie Keane, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, David Villa, Tim Cahill, Jermain Defoe, and others end their careers after their careers are over. MLS pads their bank accounts for a few years, and then they retire to the big, heated skybox in heaven.
When Steven Gerrard takes the pitch for the first time in Los Angeles this summer, fans will don their Liverpool jerseys and reminisce about a heated game that took place in Istanbul, a decade in the past. He'll be the best player on the pitch in most games the Galaxy play, but that won't be the point; the point will be seeing a dead man.
This is an honest and fair transaction, given that many fans go to MLS games for the same reason people still go to Aerosmith concerts. But in their wake are droves of American players whose careers have sputtered overseas, and who are coming home in search of another crack at playing time, money, and fame. Clint Dempsey, 31, will likely end his career in Seattle after being benched at Tottenham in 2013. Michael Bradley, one of the USMNT's biggest stars, made a controversial return last year. Brek Shea, Maurice Edu, and Mix Diskerud have all just recently signed to MLS teams. In addition to being a final lap for once-great foreigners, this country's top flight has become home to Americans who fail when they test themselves in foreign lands—a respite not just for famous has-beens, but for famous not-quites and never-weres.
It's damning that writers are already eulogizing Gerrard, calling him one of the great one-club men in history, when he's slated to play for MLS's best team this summer. It's damning that 33-year-old midfielder Gareth Barry revealed in an interview that "America was an option, and there was a conversation about it but when I spoke to the coaches here they said, 'If you are going there, you are retiring.'" It's damning when German legend Philipp Lahm mentions the American top flight in the same breath as a Qatari league famous for little more than overpaying players past their prime. And in its way, it's just as damning that Altidore, a proven failure in Europe, is not only coming home to one of MLS's favored teams, but doing so in the expectation that he'll prove to be a difference-maker.
So maybe it's best if Altidore fails here, too, just as he has nearly everywhere else, and in so doing at least proves that MLS is tough enough to stifle him. After all, a league that only exists as a last refuge for old men and as a place where young washouts can play at being something else isn't much of a league at all.
Photo Credit: Getty Images