Altidore looks to strike it big as U.S. starts World Cup play
SAO PAULO -- Jozy Altidore settled into a white plastic chair beneath a blazing sun at the U.S. team’s World Cup training facility here last week, sweat beading on his furrowed brow.
But he knew it was about to get much hotter.
Altidore has known feast and famine during a sometimes brilliant, sometimes brutal soccer career. And with his second World Cup only a few days away, a crowd of reporters pushed in to ask him, for the millionth time, why.
“Sometimes you go through times where you’re not scoring. It’s just like that,” he said, looking straight ahead. “That’s how the game is. If things aren’t going well individually, or you’re not having as much success as you want, you just have to make sure that you’re helping and you can add value other than that to the team.”
Altidore brought the U.S. a lot of value his last time out, scoring both goals in the team’s final World Cup warmup, a 2-0 victory over Nigeria. And that should be a good sign because when Altidore scores, the goals come in bunches.
When he doesn’t, the dry spells can last months.
He was only 19 when his fourth goal in seven games beat top-ranked Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. But over the next four years, he scored only five more times, getting shut out in the last World Cup in South Africa.
He rebounded last year with a team-high eight goals, including scores in a national team-record five consecutive games that got him selected U.S. Soccer’s male player of the year. Then he joined Sunderland of the English Premier League and it went south again, with Altidore ending the season on the bench while suffering through a six-month, 27-game scoreless drought for club and country.
Yet, U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, a World Cup-winning striker with West Germany, saw things he liked.
“He’s sharp, he’s hungry,” he said. “So we build on that. And then, you know, a striker’s got to solve himself as well.
“Go out there and be hungry and once you get an opportunity, you’ve got to put the ball in the net. I think he’s on a really good path.”
Altidore says he never lost faith even when he lost his touch.
“I’m the same guy I was before,” he said. “Just believe (in) the reason why you’re there, how you got there. Sometimes it just goes like that. There’s no other way to put it. Sometimes you just don’t have that streak.
“You’ve got to keep training hard, you’ve got to understand that it’s going to be better. And it will. It always does.”
Altidore’s family history has been built on a similar formula — lots of faith, lots of work and, eventually, success.
His father Joseph grew up in Haiti, the son of a farmer, before leaving the island for the U.S. with nothing more than $200 and a pocketful of dreams. There he met another Haitian, a nursing student named Gisele. They married and moved from Orange, N.J., to South Florida, where they raised four children.
Joseph followed the same routine with each, teaching them to kick a soccer ball shortly after they had learned to walk. He had never played soccer but he thought the game was fun. And so did his children.
But the fourth child, Jozy, was different, not just from his siblings but from everyone else. He was good. Really good.
When Jozy was 8, Josef Schulz, a former Austrian player and coach who ran a soccer academy in South Florida, saw the boy playing in a park and told his father that some day Jozy would play for the national team.
But that wasn’t the dream Joseph and Gisele had come to America to chase. Soccer was a fine game, they said, but education was more important.
Jozy begged for a chance to see whether he could make it in the sport. He could always study later, he said.
Eventually, his father relented.
“Sometimes, you have to let your children do what is in their heart,” Joseph said.
Turns out the boy could make it, signing as a 16-year-old with the New York Red Bulls, though he was forced to finish high school before he could play. From there he bounced around Europe, from Spain to England, Turkey, the Netherlands and eventually back to England.
During his down time, he became the fifth-leading scorer in national team history. And he’s not even 25.
The next two weeks could present the most difficult test. The U.S., drawn into the toughest group in the World Cup, begins play today. Its opponent, Ghana, eliminated the U.S. is each of the last two World Cups. And if that’s not enough, with Landon Donovan not on the U.S. roster for the first team since 1998, much of the scoring load will fall to Altidore.
Four years ago, Altidore wilted under the pressure. In four games he never found the back of the net, extending a drought in which the U.S. has not had a goal from a striker since Brian McBride scored in the knockout round in 2002.
If Altidore and his family have proven anything, though, it’s that sometimes dreams do come true. And as for that latest dry spell, how’s this for an omen: Natal, the northeastern city where the U.S. opener will be played, is known as Brazil’s “City of Sun.” But for the last three days it has poured.
“Nobody cares about what you did a year, two or three years ago,” Altidore said. “It’s what you do now that matters.”