With 30 minutes to go in El Salvador on 28 March, USA were down by two and in desperate need of a spark. Up stepped 19-year-old substitute Jozy Altidore to score the first goal in an eventual 2-2 draw. Four days later, at home against Trinidad and Tobago in his first start of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™, the muscular striker went a step further, hammering all three goals in a comprehensive win.
It was a defining four-day stretch for the former youth standout, who , after becoming the first American scorer in La Liga when he moved to Villarreal at the start of the season, now finds himself out of favour on loan at second division leaders Xerez. FIFA.com sat down for an exclusive interview with the American poacher to chat about his ups and downs in Spain and his meteoric rise for the Stars and Stripes.
FIFA.com: How did it feel to come on as a sub late in El Salvador, down 2-0 and knowing goals were needed?
Jozy Altidore: I was pretty excited when the coach tapped me and told me I was going in. At that point I felt we still had the game in our hands. It was ours to win or lose, so I was ready to go in there and do what I could to help get some goals and get the result going our way.
It was some quite a scene down there, with over 50,000 fans screaming in full voice. Were you nervous?
The atmosphere was pretty crazy, but I was focussed on what I had to do.
Veteran Frankie Hejduk set up the goal you scored to make it 2-1 and then scored the winner himself in the dying moments. How important is the 34-year-old midfielder to the US team?
Hejduk is a unique player and you can't underestimate what he brings to this team. A lot of our guys are on the younger side, but Frankie has been there and done it all. He has experience and more energy than most guys ten years younger than him. As you can see from what he's done so far in the final round, he's invaluable.
You became the youngest scorer in the USA's qualifying history in El Salvador. How did that feel?
It's nice to score goals, but I always try to focus on the team and helping the team get the results that are going to put us where we want to be.
Four days later, in Nashville, you were in from the start against Trinidad and Tobago. This time you scored all three in a 3-0 win...
I was even more excited about that. It's not every day that you get to start for your country. It's an honour that I think sometimes people don't really understand. It brings a lot of responsibility with it, but I couldn't have been happier to have done what I could to help the team out. As a striker, scoring a hat-trick is always a good feeling.
The States are on top in CONCACAF qualifying with seven points from three games. Are you happy with the way the team is playing, or can you get better?
I think, personally, the team can always get better. Once you sit there and think you're as good as you need to be, then you're in big trouble. We're playing well and getting the right results at the moment, but I think we can, and need to, do better. We need to be sharper as the games get tougher, and they will get tougher as the final round keeps on going.
As the US are in fine form, your archrivals Mexico have fallen flat. Are you concerned about a revitalised Mexico under new coach Javier Aguirre?
We're not concerned about Mexico at all. Whatever's going on with them is their business. We can't focus on Mexico, El Salvador, Trinidad or anyone else - we need to focus on ourselves and the way we're playing. That's enough to worry about.
How much of a challenge is it for the national team to come together quickly, become acclimatized and get results?
Coming together from your clubs and getting a good strong team out there that plays together as a unit is a big challenge. I think the fact that we do it is a testament to the coaches and the discipline of the players. It's a little better when you have two-game breaks.
Talk a little bit about American teamwork; it seems to be the team's hallmark...
We're a blue-collar team and we always try to make it hard on our opponent. Teamwork is what makes us effective. Our primary aim is to outwork our opponent as a team and then it's down to our individual talents to take advantage of the situation. The level of ability we have here in the States is often underestimated.
Last time we spoke, you had become the first-ever American scorer in La Liga and making good progress with Villarreal. Now you are on loan at second division leaders Xerez. Can you talk about the adjustment?
In all honesty, it was a big adjustment for me to pick up and move off to Xerez. But I am getting acclimated now and it's a great bunch of guys here and we're doing very well at the moment. I came here at a tough time, but I feel like I'm making my way forward now and I'm getting more used to the culture here in Spain.
What is the most important thing to remember when you find yourself out of favour, and trying to break into a team?
You have to focus on where you are. Sometimes as a young player you can find yourself looking ahead to where you want to be and miss out on the chance that comes your way because you're not focussed on the task at hand.
Things can happen fast in football...
Yeah, I mean look at the kid [Federico Macheda] at Manchester United. Things changed really quickly for him. He went from the youth team to scoring a crucial winner [against Aston Villa] in no time. You have to be ready because things can change in the blink of an eye. I'm a hungry player, and I hope to be ready at all times.