NEW YORK — Jozy Altidore had the best scoring season by an American that wasn't seen back home in the United States.
The 22-year-old had team highs of 15 league goals and 19 overall in his first season with AZ Alkmaar, which led the Dutch Eredivisie for much of the season before fading to fourth.
While Clint Dempsey could be seen on television nearly every weekend scoring 23 goals for Fulham in England, Altidore's TV appearances in the U.S. were limited to Europa League matches Thursday afternoons.
"That's not important to me," Altidore said ahead of the Americans' opening World Cup qualifier, against Antigua and Barbuda on Friday night in Tampa, Fla. "For me, it's just to try to keep improving and try to keep getting better. I know this is just the beginning and I want to keep going."
With 13 goals in 46 international appearances, including a hat trick against Trinidad and Tobago in an April 2009 qualifier, Altidore is considered by many to be the top young American attacker. However, he wasn't allowed to report for training with the national team until May 28 because of a dispute between AZ and the U.S. Soccer Federation — even though his final game of the season was May 6.
He spent about two weeks at home in Florida and fell behind other Americans in conditioning, missing exhibitions against Scotland and Brazil. He entered as a 62nd-minute substitute Sunday in a 0-0 tie at Canada.
"It put Jozy in a very difficult position," American coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "It makes it very difficult for him now to catch up."
Selected by New York in the 2006 Major League Soccer draft, Altidore was just 16 when he scored his first goal that September. He was sold to Spain's Villarreal in June 2008 but was hardly used and was loaned to second-division Xerez for the second half of the 2008-9 season, to England's Hull for 2009-10 and to Turkey's Bursaspor for the second half of the 2010-11 season. Altidore scored just five goals over 55 matches during the three loans.
"When you're an American and you come from MLS and you're a big fish — you kind of hit a wall," he said.
Villarreal sold him to AZ last July, and he played 55 games in his first season with the Dutch club. His arms look to be more muscular, and his all-around improvement was noticed when he reported to training with the U.S. team last week.
"That's what the best players in the world do. They play every week for their team and they come in and play for their national team," goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "We've got to get used to that as Americans, and that's what Jurgen keeps preaching to us. We see the sharpness. But a lot of it is confidence, as well."
Altidore appeared in all four U.S. matches at the 2010 World Cup, where the Americans were knocked out by Ghana in the second round. Offense is usually a problem for the U.S., which hasn't gotten a goal by a forward at the World Cup since Brian McBride in 2002.
For Altidore, getting on the field has given him a different attitude.
"I just got a chance to play," he said. "I got a chance to play consistently. I didn't just get one game, I got a few games in a row. And when you do that, you start to get confidence."
He lost his starting job for a period in the winter under coach Gertjan Verbeek. But by spring, Altidore was playing regularly again and AZ advanced to the Europa League quarterfinals before losing to Spain's Valencia,
"After the break he felt that he was going to give somebody else a chance," Altidore said. "That was a great feeling, to come back and to also stay in the team and score some goals for your team down the stretch, which was important. It was a long year. I think I was presented with different challenges, and kind of came away on top of it."