Steve Davis
Friday April 30th, 2010

Jozy Altidore wandered into a dangerous place last weekend.

His red card while playing for EPL struggler Hull City might ordinarily have prompted some head shaking, some mumbling about impetuous youth. U.S. supporters, gazing from afar, could simply have hoped the 20-year-old striker grows out of it.

But this is hardly an ordinary time. It's squeaky-bum time in soccer's ultimate cycle, the crest of the World Cup loop.

U.S. coach Bob Bradley doesn't have the luxury of assessing Altidore's actions in a vacuum. (The U.S. striker head-butted Sunderland's Alan Hutton, who threw a ball at him after a sideline tussle.) Taken on its own, Altidore's expulsion on one spring day in England won't have far-reaching impact; nothing he would do in Hull City's remaining matches was going to rescue this lost cause of an EPL side.

But what if he does something similar in early June, in South Africa? It could easily influence careers, his and others. Everything is super-charged and intensely magnified at a World Cup, the good and the bad, the present and the future consequences.

On top of it all, the United States has some history of disciplinary indiscretion in World Cups.

Eric Wynalda was young and naive when baited into a red card in 1990. Wynalda lost his cool when a Czech player stepped repeatedly on his heels. He reacted and was shown red early in the second half of a 5-1 loss. That U.S. team was fatally inexperienced, and Wynalda's ability to remain on the field wasn't going to change fates. Still, point made.

Four years later, another incident proved costly -- although the player wasn't totally at fault. At USA 1994, John Harkes received his second yellow card of the first round just before elimination play was to begin. It was a needless caution, for failing to line up 10 yards from a Romanian free kick. Still, Harkes may have been quicker to comply had he been fully aware of the consequences. U.S. staff admitted it was remiss in understanding the regulations; one yellow card in the first round would be wiped out for elimination play, but two first-round cautions would incur a suspension. Players were upset at the lack of information and administrators were rightly embarrassed. But the bottom line was unchanged: Harkes, a valuable team leader, sat against mighty Brazil.

In 2006, Pablo Mastroeni's needless, dangerous challenge on Italian playmaker Andrea Pirlo earned him red and prevented the United States from exploiting 10-man Italy. Rather than perhaps sweeping into history that night in Kaiserslautern, Germany, the teams were suddenly even again. Later, Eddie Pope's second yellow consigned the United States to heroic protection of the draw.

A few days later, defender Oguchi Onyewu leaned in on a Ghanaian forward and German referee Markus Merk awarded the softest of penalty kicks. Onyewu's fault? No. But it did drive home the point that in global soccer, Americans tend to have a hard time getting the benefit of the doubt.

Which brings us back to Altidore and the potential damage he -- or anyone else, obviously -- could cause in one mad moment.

"I think it's the best thing that could have happened to Jozy," Wynalda said Thursday in reference to Altidore's weekend red. "He understands how much he hurt his team by what he did."

Wynalda, who co-hosts the show Fox Football Fone-in, said Altidore is a thoughtful young person who will process this and come out better on the other side. "Now that he understands, there is no way he will hurt his country in a World Cup," Wynalda said. "I know what that's like. Pablo knows what that's like. There's just no way Jozy will do it now."

Altidore's behavior can't be condoned, but it may be somewhat understandable. At Hull, he is a striker who is stranded by lack of support and service on a poor team. Players do get frustrated. On the other hand, there is a chance we'll see something similar in South Africa. We know the United States leans significantly on counterattacks and set-pieces for scoring. So right off the bat, a long afternoon against England potentially lurks for any U.S. forward.

If Altidore plays, the more cunning and conniving of defenders, who will surely be aware of his relative youth and his potential for trespass into the red zone, may try to bait him as they did Wynalda 20 years ago. They could nudge, prod and tempt, hoping to push him over the line.

Of course, the United States is not alone in all of this. Petulant or downright dirty deeds have nicked the chances of far more distinguished teams. Great example: the U.S.' opponent on June 12.

What's more, England's naughtiness of modern day has been perpetrated by its most famous faces. David Beckham paid a fabulous price for a silly little kick 12 years ago. After being flattened by Diego Simeone, Beckham's seemingly benign boot to the Argentine's shin was enough to stir national contempt. His red card was a factor as England fell in the second-round match at France '98. Mirror readers awoke to the clever, biting headline "10 heroic lions -- one stupid boy," and Beckham needed years to overcome the moment.

And none other than Wayne Rooney, the centerpiece of England's 2010 bid, left World Cup 2006 in disgrace after gstomping Portugal's Ricardo Carvalho groin, either deliberately or recklessly.

Of course, Rooney is Rooney. He has harnessed some of those bulldog ways. Either way, England manager Fabio Capello doesn't have to make a choice there. Bradley certainly does. He must carefully weigh Altidore's potential contributions against his youth. And let's face it, Altidore wasn't exactly slicing and dicing EPL defenses as it was.

This is it for D.C. United. With zero points from four games, the once-proud Black and Red begins a critical stretch of three matches over eight days. First up is Hans Backe's tremendously improved side from New York. United has striker Luciano Emilio back in place, and he could play this weekend. Question is, will we see something closer to 2007 MVP form or 2009 ineffectiveness?

New England has been hanging tough and has even squeezed out a couple of results. But with Shalrie Joseph out indefinitely (while in the league's substance-abuse program), things aren't getting any easier. Dallas visits Gillette this weekend.

Chicago has a little burst of momentum going. Houston, San Jose and Los Angeles did, too, before Round 5 setbacks on the road. All four of those teams are at home on Saturday. So is Seattle, looking to rediscover the plot after last weekend's disappointing, taxing two-game road blitz.

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