Jozy Altidore did this once before, when he was 20, when he had been playing professional soccer for less than four years, when he was a kid.
Now the FIFA World Cup still holds the aura, just not the awe.
“I think this time around it’s a little less of youthful exuberance,” said Altidore, who started all four U.S. games in 2010 in South Africa. “I’m looking at more important things to focus on, which is the game.
“I think when you first come into the World Cup as a young guy you’re kind of in awe of what’s going on around you, and less focused on what’s at hand. For me, I’m more experienced in the sense of I know what to look for.”
At 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, Altidore, one of four Olympians on the U.S. team, creates an imposing presence in front of goal, which makes him the United States’ biggest scoring threat in Brazil.
Eight goals in 14 games last year gave him a share of the team scoring title and cemented his reputation as a dangerous target man. But a six-month scoring slump had some — if not Altidore himself — questioning his form.
U.S. national team manager Jurgen Klinsmann, a former striker himself, knows all about players’ confidence. He feels that Altidore’s two goals in the United States a 2-1 friendly victory over Nigeria June 7 did wonders for the usually soft-spoken 24-year-old. It was the last game for the U.S. men’s team before it headed to Brazil for the World Cup.
“Obviously it’s a wonderful message to see that Jozy put the thing in the net,” Klinsmann said. “It gives him a big smile at the right time now. It will give him a lot of confidence. It’s always a tough period when you don’t score for striker.”
For Klinsmann and the rest of the U.S. players, the return of Altidore’s scoring touch is a welcome relief as the United States gets set to open the World Cup on Monday (June 16) against Ghana.
“Our faith and our confidence in Jozy have never wavered,” midfielder Michael Bradley, a 2008 Olympian, said. “He’s such an important guy for our team. He means so much. He’s such a good player. On a personal level, everybody’s happy to see him get some goals because we need to score to win and he’s a guy who’s going to help us get goals.”
Besides his eight goals for the United States, Altidore scored 31 goals for AZ Alkmaar, including 23 for the fourth-best in the Dutch Eredivisie in the 2012-2013 season. But he transferred to Sunderland in England last summer and scored only one goal, back in December.
With another four years as a professional on his résumé since the 2010 World Cup, Altidore took this slump in stride and said he wasn’t suffering a crisis of confidence.
“To be honest, it makes no difference,” he said. “I’ve played for this team for such a long time now that I think it’s my responsibility to help the team in other ways; tracking back and being someone that younger guys can look up to. I take that very seriously.”
The Americans will embrace all the confidence they can muster when they face Ghana, a team rated 24 spots lower in the monthly FIFA World Rankings but that they have lost to in both previous meetings — both of them in win-or-go-home World Cup games.
Klinsmann has said repeatedly a victory against Ghana is absolutely critical to the United States’ hopes of advancing out of Group G. After Ghana, the United States will play Portugal, which features star striker Cristiano Ronaldo, on June 22, and then three-time World Cup champion Germany on June 26.
The United States at least has the momentum of three straight friendly victories going into the World Cup: 2-0 over Azerbaijan, 2-1 against Turkey and 2-1 over reigning African champion and fellow World Cup qualifier Nigeria.
Ghana has split its two preparation matches, both against fellow World Cup qualifiers: a 1-0 loss to the Netherlands, and 4-0 victory against South Korea.
“If we can emulate this performance against a team pretty similar to Nigeria against Ghana, we can start the group off the right way,” Klinsmann said. “We all want to get out of the group. That’s a goal of ours. I think the opportunity is there.”
Brian Trusdell is a writer from New Jersey. He has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.