In 2005, Jozy Altidore was the youngest player on the U.S. Under-17 World Cup roster. That feat drew little attention, however, given that only two years before, at only 13, Freddy Adu had captured the world's attention by performing as a standout player in the '03 tournament.
Given that Adu was still age-eligible for the '05 competition in Peru, even though he didn't participate, a few fans at the tournament craned their necks and called for him whenever the U.S. players departed the team bus for practices. They would look right past Altidore, though, because even at 15, Altidore's strapping size ruled him out as ever being mistaken for the pocket dynamo that was Adu.
Though used only as a substitute, Altidore gained valuable experience in his first FIFA tournament, and his game continued to develop along with his size. By the time he joined Major League Soccer a year later, he was taller than 6 feet and bursting with athletic potential.
In some ways, Altidore was bearing down on the trajectory of his hero at the time, Eddie Johnson. The tall, speedy Johnson had a stunning debut on the international scene, averaging better than a goal a game early in his national-team career. He seem destined to be a top U.S. performer for many years to come.
But injuries stunted Johnson's impact, while Altidore continued to progress, ultimately eclipsing the older forward when a stunning $10 million transfer offer from Villarreal came in that made the fee for Altidore the highest ever paid for an American player.
In some ways, following in the footsteps of Adu and Johnson was an ideal path for Altidore. Their accomplishments, and later their falls from grace, deflected attention away from Altidore's own ascent, sparing him from too much buildup.
The Villarreal transfer made flying under the radar impossible for Altidore. It was too large a sum for him not to draw scrutiny. Things weren't smooth sailing in Spain, though, as playing time was hard to come by at Villarreal. "Wherever I am, I have to play," Altidore said this past July. "That's so important."
After a loan to second-division Xerez failed to gain him any playing time, an undaunted Altidore managed to sign in England with Hull City. The precious playing time he'd been hunting for finally arrived.
The cautionary tales of both Johnson, a player Altidore admired, and Adu, whom Altidore respects as a talented contemporary, have shaped the big striker. From the hype surrounding Adu, Altidore learned to downplay expectations. Even as a few media outlets labeled him a transfer bust for his lack of impact at Villarreal relative to his cost, most saw the price as a down payment on Altidore's potential and realized he was a project player.
Sure, Altidore had an "Impossible Is Nothing" commercial of his own, and an EA FIFA videogame cover, but the media hoopla was minuscule compared to that of Adu. Thus, the bumps on Altidore's developmental road were ridden out more easily. "Some people have bad luck when it comes to playing time at clubs," Altidore said earlier this summer, when the subject of Adu came up.
On the surface, the parallels between recent moves are obvious -- both Adu and Altidore didn't get much time with the first team at their respective clubs, Benfica and Villarreal. Both had loan deals that were busts as far as gaining more playing minutes, at Monaco and Xerez, respectively. Then both secured deals at more obscure clubs, Hull City and Belenenses, where they're expected to see more of the field.
Yet Adu's national-team obituary seems to be written almost as often as Altidore is hailed as the future. Unlike the logjam Adu has encountered in the U.S. midfield pecking order, however, Altidore has pushed through a transitional era at forward. With the international retirement of Brian McBride, and with Johnson failing to regain top form, Altidore was given more opportunities with the national team than are usually allotted a player not receiving regular club minutes.
Recognizing how precious those chances were, Altidore made the most of them, scoring crucial goals in World Cup qualifying and at the Confederations Cup, where he tallied a goal in the Americans' upset of Spain.
In addition to fading from matches on occasion, Altidore still lacks the holding and link-up qualities of the much-maligned Brian Ching, but he has a knack for putting the ball in the net. Much is forgiven of players who can score. Beyond that, Altidore has a strong sense of the team concept, going out of his way to refer to the collective objectives of Team USA.
"We now know what it takes to bounce back in these types of games and we have the fight within us to get three points," Altidore said after starting and scoring the game-winning goal in Saturday's victory against El Salvador.
Such comments are another example of Altidore shrugging off the "Designated U.S. Soccer Savior" mantle some want to throw on the latest player with potential and talent.
World Cup qualifying is simply too much of a burden for any player to bear alone. Even the superlative gifts of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi cannot save their own national squads from danger.
As the fight for the top three spots in CONCACAF intensifies, Altidore again may be the youngest player in the U.S. effort, but he's outgrown any boy-wonder labels. Yet he rightly pushes away any designation of being "the man" for the U.S. It's enough, apparently, to be an important contributor to the cause.
Andrea Canales is chief editor ofGoal.com North America.