American Strikers in Europe: A Case Study in Value and Timing

It is a double-edged sword, this path for American soccer players in Europe.  Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo are two players with many similarities that have taken their chances down this risky path.  Both are forwards for the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT), albeit in different capacities, and both journeyed to Europe before their 20th birthday.  Despite their similar paths to Europe, their journeys have taken very different financial turns.

Striker One

Just one week ago, Jozy Altidore ended his journey through Europe and was welcomed back to Major League Soccer (MLS).  The USMNT star forward was sent from Sunderland to Toronto FC in a swap deal for unsatisfied British forward Jermaine Defoe.

Altidore is welcomed back to MLS with great fanfare for his second stint in the league.  Along the way Altidore has had a successful series of transfers that brought him to four different European nations.  Altidore began his career as a productive young forward playing with his local club, the New York Red Bulls.  His first transfer to Spanish club Villareal was valued at $10 million at age 18.  With a promise for development and a bigger paycheck, Altidore was lured to Europe.

Jozy immediately hit a roadblock in his first few years in Europe.  Unable to secure regular first team minutes, he was loaned to three different clubs, each finding little use for the American striker who began to mature physically.

Following his low production, Villareal unloaded him to the Dutch Eredivisie for a transfer fee rumored to be $3 million.  AZ Alkmaar would be Jozy’s most successful years in Europe.  Altidore took the Eredivisie by storm, scoring 39 goals in two years with the club, and led AZ to first place in the 2012-13 season, scoring 23 goals in league play .

Jozy’s value continued to increased with his play on the international level, where he was given a prominent role on the USMNT for the 2010 World Cup and beyond.  With success in Europe and internationally, Altidore was set to transfer to the Barclay’s Premier League (BPL).  Sunderland FC paid a $13 million transfer fee to pry him away from AZ Alkmaar.

Success in England would not come easy, as Jozy would struggle once again to find first team minutes.  He was rather unimpressive for Sunderland from 2013-2014, and also failed to make an impact at the 2014 FIFA World Cup after sustaining an unlucky hamstring injury in the 24th minute of the USMNT’s opening match.  Despite his struggles abroad, Toronto FC has inked a five year deal rumored to be worth $30 million to bring Jozy back to the league he left behind seven years ago.

If there’s one thing that is consistent with Altidore’s time in Europe, it is his ability to demonstrate his value from club to club – perhaps not on the pitch on game day, but in potential.  His $13 million transfer fee to Sunderland appears to be a worthy and logical investment for a young striker with the scoring record Altidore had coming out of the Eredivisie.  Even when Altidore struggled, he was able to secure multi-million dollar transfers merely on the promise that the American team striker would eventually be a sound investment.


Striker Two

Twenty-year-old Juan Agudelo has been without a club for months now.  A flashy young striker with great promise and several opportunities with the USMNT also started his journey with the New York Red Bulls.  Bouncing between various MLS teams, he still managed to score goals wherever he went.  Agudelo was destined for Europe, and like Altidore, his best years were ahead of him and Europe looked to be a place to help him sharpen his skills.  Stoke City of the BPL came calling and Agudelo anxiously jumped at the opportunity.

British labor officials would stop Agudelo’s dream before it even began, however.  Unable to secure a work permit due to restrictions on footballers who do not demonstrate exceptional value, Stoke agreed to loan Agudelo to the Eredivisie, the same place where Altidore had succeeded years prior.  After a short six-month loan and another failed attempt to secure a work permit, Stoke City cut ties with Agudelo.

Two American players who drew high praise from European clubs find themselves at very different places.  Somehow, Altidore has secured a $30 million contract while Agudelo has sat on the sidelines for six months now, waiting for a club to give him a chance.

The risk that Agudelo took to travel to Europe was just as reasonable as Altidore’s.  Perhaps comparing the value of these two players is not fair.  They remain two very different players with different skill sets.  Clubs clearly saw something in Altidore that would yield a high ROI, and perhaps Agudelo might be unable to differentiate himself in a competitive and crowded market.  So goes the plight of American players in Europe.

That said, it is still hard to imagine the growth opportunity for Agudelo is so significantly less compared to Altidore’s growth opportunity at age 20.  So what could account for this difference in two young promising talents?  Timing seems to play a significant role in Altidore’s success, which is not to discredit Altidore’s abilities by any means.  But something must be said for the attention that Agudelo has drawn recently for not playing for any club at all.  Altidore’s transfer fees total $26 million while Agudelo has $0, partially because he left on free transfers.  Ultimately, Agudelo’s timing is just not working the same as it did for Altidore.

The good news for Agudelo is that the story is not finished.  At 22 years old, Altidore was being transferred to the Dutch league, cast off from the first European club that showed interest.  Agudelo still has plenty of path left to walk, as long as he can find his way out of the forest.


What do you think about the the paths of Altidore and Agudelo through European soccer? Let us know in the comments section below, or via Facebook or Twitter.

Reporting on the business side of the world's game.