USA fans saw the best of Jozy Altidore at the weekend. The brawny striker did it all in a 4-3 friendly win over Germany in the American capital of Washington DC, chasing lost causes and harassing defenders. He held the ball up with his powerful physique, inviting the players around him to add themselves to the attack and assisting on one of Clint Dempsey’s two goals. In short, he made the US a better team and looked a constant threat.
The Netherlands-based forward also did something he’s not done in a while, at least not in a USA jersey. He scored a goal. Altidore opened his account with a sumptuous volley from 12 yards to send the home fans into raptures, and there was visible relief in his celebration. Dragging a thumb across his throat, he signalled the death of a rather lengthy scoring drought. It was his first goal for the national team from open play since October 2011, nearly two years ago.
US fans will hope he can continue the form in a gruelling month of June. The Americans face Jamaica, Panama and Honduras in crucial qualifiers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ in Brazil in the space of 11 frenzied days. “We’re at our best when we’re battling together as a team,” Altidore told FIFA.com, eager to stress the importance of team play rather than individual heroics. “We need to be a hard team to beat and we need to get back to being a team that opponents don’t want to meet.”
Dutch master with AZ
While Altidore is justifiably hesitant to talk about his goal-scoring prowess in national team colours in recent years, he’s coming off his most prolific season at club level. He broke a scoring record for an American playing in Europe this year, scoring 23 times in 33 league games for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar. He scored eight more in the Dutch Cup, which Alkmaar won for the first time in three decades thanks in large part to his consistently predatory play.
“This season went really well for me,” Altidore said of his year in the Lowlands in which Alkmaar finished tenth. “I improved as a player and just kept learning. At my age, this is the most important thing. I just want to keep moving forward and it was a special moment for me, and for the Alkmaar fans, to win the Cup.” Altidore began his professional career while still a teenager and has amassed nearly 60 caps, perhaps causing some to forget that he’s still just 23.
His performance against the Germans last week clearly displays significant improvement to American fans, some of whom have not always been patient with Altidore. You can hear confidence in his voice, and scoring goals, as the old saying goes, is all about confidence. Altidore began his career with New York Red Bulls as a teenager, but spent the last five years bouncing around Europe, first with Villarreal in Spain before loan spells in Turkey and England where his playing time was limited. Since he earned a consistent spot in Alkmaar’s starting XI, regular football is agreeing with Altidore.
USA national team coach, Jurgen Klinsmann famously left Altidore out of the squad for a pair of FIFA World Cup qualifiers last year, criticising his striker openly. “He [Altidore] deserves a big compliment now,” Klinsmann said after the Germany friendly, recognizing the upturn in form. “Our goal is to get him to an international, consistent level, but we don’t expect him to be perfect.”
Altidore has indeed not been perfect. Some voices in the American media were critical of his 45-minute performance in the 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium, a few days before his heroics against the Germans. Both games – despite being against big-name European opposition – are a mere prelude to the three Hexagonal qualifiers this month, the first against Jamaica on Friday, that will largely decide whether or not the Americans reach Brazil 2014.
“CONCACAF is complicated, and I’m not sure everyone outside of this part of the world knows that,” said Altidore, keen to point out that the competition in the Brazil 2014 Hexagonal is fiercer than any in recent memory. “Jamaica is always tough on the road in Kingston,” he said. “It feels like you’re not just playing against the team, but against the whole country.”
The next two games see the Americans, currently in third place after a win, a draw and a loss, back on home soil against Panama and Honduras. “At home, we’ll have to open it up a bit more and attack with a little more freedom,” Altidore added. “We have to take all the points we can at home because these are crucial games.”
While American fans and opposition defenders will surely be focused on the in-form Altidore, the player himself has his own ideas about what makes the States tick. “We have to be positive and confident, to do the hard work and make the simple things work for us,” he concluded, espousing a collective philosophy. Despite a moment of sparkling individual form, Altidore remains a team player at heart. “That’s when we’re at our best.”