There is no other United States men’s national team subject that captivates the fan base and the media quite so much as the goals scored by Jozy Altidore, or the lack thereof.
An attempt at an explanation: In this post-Freddy Adu age – it’s been years since the pipsqueak prodigy was in the national team picture – Altidore is US Soccer’s resident prodigal son. And owing to the team’s long-running dearth of natural strikers the onus has been on him to provide the scoring for longer, and starting at a younger age, than anyone could reasonably be expected to deliver on.
He has nevertheless delivered often, building even more expectation. And so an outsized importance is given to his every streak and slump, becoming some kind of proxy for the program’s overall health. As Jozy goes, so goes the entire team – that seems to be the consensus. He is the golden child, sold to a big-time European club (Villarreal) for a record fee ($10 million) at a ludicrously young age (18). He has never shed his tag as the program’s great promise. It’s telling that he’s mostly referred to as ‘Jozy’ and seldom ‘Altidore’, underscoring the closeness the American soccer world feels about him.
On Saturday night, the now-24-year-old Altidore got two goals against Nigeria in the final tune-up game before the World Cup. He had not scored for his country since Oct. 11 – a six-game goalless stretch – and had not scored for anyone since Dec. 4; that’s when he last bagged a goal for his troubled club Sunderland in his fraught first season there.
The first in the 2-1 win was a tap-in. Just what he needed – an unmissable chance. The second was difficult and tremendous. Altidore received a high ball over the top from Michael Bradley, brought it down, cut inside his defender and smashed it past the goalkeeper at the near post. And suddenly, no more doubts existed.
“He has so much talent, he has so much potential,” said USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“It just wants to come through, which it did last summer tremendously in our World Cup qualifying campaign. We see him being back on the right track.”
All aboard the Jozy Bandwagon! It had gotten quiet up there. Few had hung around from last summer, when Altidore bagged seven goals in five games, guiding the Americans to their place at the World Cup. Before that, it had been almost two years since his last goal.
Strikers, of course, are streaky. Altidore is an extreme case. As veteran Dutch goal-machine Ruud van Nistelrooy told a young and goal-starved Gonzalo Higuain at Real Madrid several years ago: “Goals are like ketchup. Sometimes, as much as you try, they don’t come out. And then they come all of a sudden.”
The goals are coming out of the bottle again for Altidore. They always do sooner or later. In the last seven years, he has racked up 72 caps for the USA and netted 23 goals. That’s a hugely respectable rate, signifying an accomplished international career. It’s just that his goals come in quick flurries.
The thing is, even when Altidore doesn’t score, his value to the team can be immense. “The reality is that anybody who ever questions Jozy or doesn’t see what he brings to the team doesn’t understand soccer,” Bradley said. “This guy does so much and at such a young age he has given our team so much on so many big days. You can’t help but laugh when now he goes through a few games and he doesn’t get a goal or two and people start to want to throw all the rest out the window.”
Still, concern was building anew in recent months. The last time an American listed as a striker scored at a World Cup came at the 2002 finals. That’s a run of eight games. And so, like a few times before, the question of Altidore’s state of mind came to dominate the discourse surrounding the team. How is Jozy feeling? How is confidence? Does he need a goal to get it back?
You heard it again and again. Following last Sunday’s game against Turkey, Altidore got a tad fed up with the endless questions on the same subject. “Everybody is so worried about my confidence, unbelievable,” he snapped at a reporter after the umpteenth query. “My confidence is fine, my man. It’s not going to change whether I score a hat-trick or I don’t.”
He has always insisted that he is not affected by his form, whether he is on another scoring binge or starving for a goal. “To be honest, it makes no difference,” he said again following his brace on Saturday night. “I don’t know if it’s weird to you but it’s not weird to me.”
When your position, your job, is to score goals and you know that the business of producing them is fickle, you learn to block out the chatter. So says fellow USA striker Chris Wondolowski. “We don’t let that talk get to us,” he said.
Nonetheless, when your raison d’ȇtre on the field eludes you, frustration can build. “It’s always a tough period when you don’t score for a striker,” Klinsmann said of Altidore, speaking as one of soccer’s all-time great strikers. “You get more and more anxious about the situation, you work harder and harder. He really worked his back off. And then you just wish that the moment comes, that you put it in there and then you start to be your own self again.”
Now that it has, all is said to be well again with Jozy. And all is said to be well with the entire national team. Until, in all likelihood, he stops scoring.