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Altidore's potential is immense

This story appeared in the World Cup 2010 preview issue of Sports Illustrated Presents.

"Wasabi!" shouts the Japanese teppanyaki chef as he flips an egg onto the top of his toque. Its was late March and Jozy Altidore sits at a large table in the Japanese restaurant he frequents on Sunday nights in Leeds, where he's lived since his loan to the Premier League club Hull City last August. So much about Altidore, the American striker, suggests he's a fully grown man -- his physical bearing, 6-foot-1 and a sculpted 195 pounds; the way he coolly navigates England's highways in his white BMW 6 Series; his eloquence when speaking about earthquake relief efforts in his parents' native Haiti -- that it's easy to forget he turned 20 only last November. Then suddenly his youth will reveal itself. "Madonna's American?" he asks, incredulous. "Why does she talk like that?" He can't recall a time when the Michigan-born pop star didn't speak with a British accent.

In July 2009 his age was more apparent as he sat thigh to thigh with his father, Joseph; his mother, Gisele; his older brother, Janak; and his older sisters, Lindsay and Sadia, on a new leather sectional sofa in their living room in Boca Raton, Fla. They talked about the future of the baby of the family, known to them by his given name, Josmer. Gis�le said she wanted him to attend college. Janak has a degree in finance. Both Lindsay and Sadia are studying to be nurses, like their mother. College, to Gisele, is essential to a person's success. "College life is beautiful," she said. "It would teach you decision making and a lot of things."

"Ma ...," said Jozy, glancing at his BlackBerry, his feet propped up on a soccer ball.

"It is wrong that you haven't gone. Wrong," Gisele continued. "Yes, go to school, and at least stay a year in college, and life would be better." Jozy, having heard her pleas before, didn't respond.

Later he would admit that he sometimes thinks about what it would be like to go to college, to walk around a campus with a book-filled backpack, to earn money by busing tables at night, as his father once did. "I don't blame my mom for wanting me to go," he said. "She wants the best for me. I definitely think I'm going to do it at some point."

It was a soft definitely. Altidore might be the age of most college sophomores, but his life already includes accomplishments far beyond mastery of Intro to Psych. Four years ago, at 16, he scored his first professional goal, in his 18th minute of play for Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls -- a 30-yard game-winning laser that seemed to portend the dawning of a new era for U.S. soccer. At 18, in February 2008, he became the youngest player to score a goal for the U.S. national team in the modern era, in a 2-2 draw against Mexico. And 14 months later he became the youngest U.S. national to score an international hat trick, in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad and Tobago.

Two summers ago the powerful Spanish club Villarreal paid $10 million -- roughly twice the highest transfer fee a foreign club had ever paid MLS -- to acquire Altidore. This season Villarreal loaned him to Hull City, where more often than not he has started at striker in the world's best soccer league.

Altidore has trod ground on which no other U.S. player of his age has walked, and he has the potential to become what many other players before him, such as his friend Freddy Adu, did not: an American who truly matters in the world's game. He will enter the World Cup this June as the U.S. side's biggest goal-scoring threat, particularly if his good friend and fellow forward Charlie Davies does not fully recover from the injuries he sustained in a terrible car crash last October. Altidore will be asked to take on his broad shoulders a significant portion of the U.S. scoring burden at a tournament in which his country has not once advanced past the quarterfinals since 1930.

In other words, college can wait.

One way to know you're in a house where soccer players were raised is to look at a ceiling fan. It might wobble. It might be dinged. It might be cracked. Or like the fan in the Altidores' kitchen, it might have had its blades broken off by balls blasted by growing feet from an improvised penalty spot in the living room. "I knew if I put in another fan," says Joseph Altidore, "they were going to break it."

The tidy four-bedroom ranch sits on a corner plot in a quiet, sun-soaked Florida neighborhood where the bermuda-grass lawns grow thick and springy. It is the type of home and the type of neighborhood that was unimaginable to Joseph and Gisele when they were growing up in Haiti, he in four iron-sheet-roofed rooms on his family's subsistence farm near the southwestern town of Les Cayes, she sharing a one-room apartment, with fabric hung from the ceiling to create living and sleeping areas, with her father, sister, stepmother and three stepsiblings in Port-au-Prince.

Like most Haitians during the 30-year dictatorship of Francois Duvalier and his son, Jean-Claude, Jozy's parents lived under the constant threat of violence. When a business owner who had fallen behind on his payoffs to the regime was pulled from his truck around the bend from Joseph's family's farm and hacked to death by machete, neighbors were horrified but not surprised. More often, people simply disappeared into the Duvaliers' dungeons, never to be seen again.

The comfort that Joseph and Gisele now enjoy was something for which they could only hope when they immigrated to New Jersey, at age 23, he in 1974 and she a year earlier. One day in '75 Joseph was returning home on the number 20 bus from his job as a busboy at the Friar Tuck Inn in Cedar Grove, N.J. Gisele stepped through the folding doors, took one look at the handsome young Haitian on board and sat down next to him.

During the next 18 years Joseph and Gisele would get married and have four children, and through it all they worked for their future -- hard. In 1984, while holding down full-time jobs, they earned degrees from Essex County College in Newark, he in electronics and she in nursing. After that Gis�le would work overnight shifts at a hospital as many as five times a week. Joseph rose at 4 a.m. each weekday to begin his rounds as a deliveryman for FedEx. Finally, in '93, after a stop in Coral Springs, Fla., they had saved enough to afford a down payment on a house in Boca. It still wasn't easy. They lived paycheck to paycheck to pay their mortgage. Their older children had to prepare the younger ones for school each morning while their parents were at work. The family ate dinner at night on cheap plastic chairs, and their television had no buttons on it. But the house was theirs, and they felt they had made it.

In between the work, moreover, there was play. Joseph made sure of it. He passed on his love of soccer to each of their children, gently kicking balls to them as soon as they were three years old. Each showed aptitude: Janak spent some time in the U.S. development system, and Sadia was a college fullback at East Carolina and then Florida International. The youngest child, though, was a natural. One Saturday in 1998 Joseph took eight-year-old Jozy and some other boys to play pickup soccer in Boca's South County Regional Park. A man named Josef Schulz walked by and stopped in his tracks.

Schulz, then 46, had played in 418 games in the Austrian Bundesliga. He had been the general manager of the Rapid Vienna club, which in 1985 reached the final of UEFA's now-defunct Cup Winners' Cup. He had written an 800-page dissertation-- half on soccer training, half on soccer administration -- that had earned him a doctorate in economics at the University of Vienna. He had just taken early retirement and moved to Boca, planning to spend his days taking relaxing walks in the park with his wife, Barbara. Then he saw the way this eight-year-old played the game he loved, and he knew that his early retirement would come to an early end.

"I said to my wife, 'Look at this player! This is impossible that this is America!' " Schulz recalls in a Schwarzeneggerian cadence. "First, the physical part. You already saw that he was something special. But the most important thing that impressed me was the mental part. Although it was only a pickup game, the understanding [in] the runs he did! He made sprints into open spaces you can't even dream [of with] somebody who is 12 or 13. I never saw an eight-year-old who was that talented, even in Europe."

Schulz marched up to Joseph. "I asked if his son would like to train with a professional coach," Schulz says. "I told him [the boy] would end up on the national team and play in the World Cup.

"He said, 'What are you talking about? My son is only eight years old. What do you see in him?'

"I said, 'I see everything someone can see in a good player.' "

Schulz started a soccer school with Jozy and four other boys. They trained four times a week, at first as an outlaw band chased from park to park by permit-demanding parks authorities. Sometimes they were forced to practice in the evening on a patch of grass next to U.S. Route 441, with illumination provided by the headlights of their parents' cars. Soon they were playing scrimmages and matches against other groups, some of them only three-on-three because there weren't enough players. Led by Jozy, they would win more than 200 of these games in a row and cause other top youth clubs in the area to drop out of tournaments when they saw the cheekily named Boca Juniors in the bracket.

In November 2004, after Jozy had spent seventh and eighth grade at Boca Prep on a scholarship funded by the school's most famous alumnus, Andy Roddick, and two months as a freshman at West Boca High -- "I wanted to see how it felt to go to a real high school," he explains-- he joined the national team's residency program at IMG Academy, across the state in Bradenton. There, for the first time, he encountered players who intimidated him, particularly when MLS clubs traveled to Bradenton to train.

"He was in awe of them, all nervous playing against these guys," says Brian Maisonneuve, a former U.S. midfielder who was an assistant coach on the U-17 national team. "I said, 'Jozy, you're going to be there. You can play with them.' He was bigger than half of them and faster and as good as a lot of the guys on the field." Neither Jozy nor Maisonneuve could have guessed how soon he would play alongside them and then move past them.

In January 2006, after Jozy had been in Bradenton a little more than a year, the MetroStars, predecessors of the Red Bulls, selected him 17th in the MLS draft. Eight months later he made his debut and wondered why his teammates, some of whom were two decades his senior, kept telling him that he was "on a vacation far away" -- a reference to a song about a woman named Josie that the band The Outfield released four years before Altidore's birth. Less than two years later, after he had scored 15 goals in 37 MLS appearances, he was on his way to Europe.

There it quickly became clear that this teenager from Florida could not just jump across the Atlantic and continue his rise unfettered among the world's best professionals, in a place where soccer is not a fringe sport but is in the blood.

In April 2009 Altidore was in a predicament familiar to many teenagers: His car had broken down, and he was waiting in a supermarket parking lot for his mom to pick him up. The supermarket, though, was in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, and the car belonged to the Andalusian team Xerez CD, the second-division club to which Villarreal had loaned him for the second half of last season.

This was not the first, nor would it be the last of Altidore's off-the-field difficulties in Spain. He struggled with the language; he struggled with the food; he struggled to adapt to the daily siesta taken by many Spaniards. "The country shuts down for three hours, from one o'clock to four o'clock," he said. "You're done with practice, and at 1:30 you can't go get something to eat." Nor was every Spaniard pleased that Altidore was the first American -- a black American, at that-- to score a goal in La Liga (for Villarreal, in November 2008). One day Altidore emerged from his apartment to find that someone had painted the words �FUERA AMERICANO! ("Get out, American!") in white on his car. "I just washed it off and went to practice," he says.

While he experienced less culture shock after he moved to England last August, it didn't abate entirely. After showing up late for a match in October he found himself off the day's roster -- and exacerbated things by publicly apologizing on his Twitter account. That might be normal in the U.S., but it outraged Hull manager Phil Brown, who fined Altidore. "I'm laying low on Twitter," he says. "I apologized for being late, that's not what they want to see. There's no reason for me to upset them if I can avoid it."

Another time, on his way to practice, Altidore was stuck for 15 minutes in the middle of a herd of sheep. He shot video of it. "That was my proof," he says, "just in case they thought I was slacking off." That time, though, he arrived on time.

Even more disconcerting were his struggles on the field. Here was this $10 million wunderkind, and he was called on to play in just six games for Villarreal and none at all for Xerez. Then he was one of the highest-paid players in Hull City history, making around $40,000 a week, and as his club fought relegation, he scored just one goal in his first 25 Premier League games. Bob Bradley, the U.S. national team coach since 2006, watched intently. "Whenever a player chooses to accept the challenge of going to a bigger club -- especially a young player-- nothing will ever come easy," he says.

One problem, say all the men who have coached Altidore -- Schulz included -- is that he is not consistently intense in daily training sessions. This was a big reason why he rarely saw the field in Spain and why Villarreal didn't have second thoughts about lending him first to Xerez and then to Hull.

"He's a laid-back lad, to be fair, and sometimes he can train like that," says Iain Dowie, who in mid-March took over as Hull's manager. "He's got to get into training as if it's for real. Everything he does must be to the nth degree. At times he can be languid."

Responds Jozy, "I've been hearing that for a long time. I think it's more based on the way I am, my background. I think people get the wrong idea of me because my family's from the Caribbean. I might come off as lazy, nonchalant. But it's just laid-back, you know? It's hard to change what's in my blood. It's not lazy, but you go to a training session, everybody's into it, yelling, getting after it. That's not my type of thing. I don't really yell. The energy I put out is there with anybody else's, but I think they just want to see it verbally. I can work on it."

His goal-scoring drought in Hull can be partly attributed to the team itself. Altidore is not surrounded by gifted players, and Brown coached a long-ball style in which Jozy was asked to receive the ball, turn and mount an attack by himself, often against a quartet of world-class defenders. That's a big challenge for any striker, and Jozy, in his first season in the Premiership, was not up to it.

"We so badly want to have a superstar," says L.A. Galaxy manager Bruce Arena, who coached the U.S. national team from 1998 to 2006 and the Red Bulls when Altidore made his professional debut. "Every time a kid does something positive, we get pretty excited. But there's a long way to go here before we start calling [Altidore] a superstar. We need to be a little bit patient. Can he develop into a topflight forward? Of course he can."

Bradley sees it this way: "The first job of a striker," he says, "is still [scoring] goals. But a good striker has to help on days when he doesn't score goals. He has to be able to do other things. He has to realize how much pressure he takes off his team when he can hold the ball, draw fouls, do a little work defensively. So the overall package of being a forward at the highest level is just more demanding, and we're all just trying to get Jozy to recognize the different challenges and to take the things that he does well and move them along."

The knockout rounds of the Confederations Cup in South Africa last June highlighted Altidore's considerable strengths as well as his weaknesses. In the semifinals he was a force -- perhaps the primary factor in the U.S.'s shocking 2-0 win over Spain. In the 27th minute he received a ball from Clint Dempsey at the top of the box, outmuscled Spanish defender and Villarreal teammate Joan Capdevila and fired a shot past Iker Casillas, considered by many to be the world's finest goalkeeper, to score the first goal, which would prove to be the game-winner. Besides that, Altidore was aggressive and disrupted the Spanish defense throughout his 84 minutes on the pitch.

Four days later, against Brazil and against L�cio, the Selecao's rugged defender and captain -- things were very different. In his 74 minutes of play Altidore didn't take a shot, and he was so uninvolved that TV viewers might have wondered whether he even played in the game, which Brazil won 3-2. One of those viewers was Schulz, Altidore's old coach. "I was in Sao Paulo at the time scouting some players, and I watched in a bar with 500 Brazilians," Schulz says. "After the goal he scored against Spain, everyone in Brazil was scared of Josmer. [Schulz always calls his star pupil Josmer.] When the U.S. team was coming out of the tunnel, he was the only one they showed on the telecast. Then -- nothing. The Brazilian fans could not believe that Josmer didn't even seem to be trying. I'm proud of him, and I love him to death, but I think he should be consistently on a much higher level than he is."

Altidore doesn't disagree. "I don't think I was good in that game," he says. "Clint, Charlie, Landon [Donovan], they all played well. If I had, we would have had a better shot. I could have been more involved. It was hard for me playing Lucio -- he was very physical. It was the first time I faced a defender like that."

Like his difficulties in the first part of his season with Hull, the Brazil game toughened Altidore, confirmed for him that "he shouldn't feel like he's made it already, and [he should] realize that there's an awful lot of work to come," as Arena puts it.

"I'm used to scoring goals every two, three games, so it's definitely a frustrating thing to have only one with Hull," Altidore says. "But now I'd rather play a huge role in a game and [help] my team win, than score and we lose."

The 45-year-old Dowie, a Premier League striker in the 1990s, says Altidore is "learning that he needs a bit more devil in his game. If he finds that devil, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."

Although Altidore's goal drought continued in the latter part of Hull City's season, he seemed to find that devil under Dowie, and he became a force to be reckoned with by doing all of the things Bradley says a striker must do even when he's not scoring. In a crucial home game against Dempsey's Fulham side on March 27, Altidore used his big body to overpower defenders, controlled the ball and made run after run at the goal. By the time Dowie pulled him in the 79th minute, he had drawn a penalty kick -- which teammate Jimmy Bullard easily converted for what proved to be the game-winning goal -- and no fewer than six other free kicks, and time and again he had disrupted Fulham as it tried to initiate an attack from its backfield. The 24,361 fans in attendance gave him a standing ovation and chanted "U-S-A! U-S-A!" as Altidore trotted off the field, and he applauded them back. Even if his goal tally didn't show it, he had come a long way, in a year and a half, from the days of �Fuera Americano!

"You've got to show your teammates that in hard games you're somebody they can count on," Bob Bradley had said. Altidore had obviously listened.

"Wasabi!" shouted the Japanese chef as he drummed out a beat with his salt and pepper shakers. In the restaurant the day after his triumphant performance against Fulham, Altidore's conversation demonstrated how much he had matured from the previous summer, when he sat thigh to thigh with his family in the living room in Boca Raton. Back then he was still glowing after attending the ESPY awards in Los Angeles a few days earlier, and he excitedly listed the stars he had met: Venus and Serena Williams, Will.I.Am, Samuel L. Jackson and others, some of whom had even known who he was. But seven months later in Leeds he said, "It's crazy. I'll meet people -- Lindsay Lohan, Naomi Campbell, whoever -- and I won't even be like, Oh, my God! I'm over it, I guess."

When he attended the ESPYs he was 19, and now he is 20 -- which, after all, isn't so very young by international soccer standards. Argentina's Lionel Messi, the consensus world's best player, is 22. Wayne Rooney was 18 in 2004 when he scored a hat trick in his Manchester United debut, and he's been having his finest season at 24. Donovan, the best player the U.S. has yet produced, was 20 in '02 when he won the first of his record six U.S. national team player of the year awards.

Jozy, in fact, has tired of hearing about his own unfulfilled potential -- things such as "The starting points, when you think about what you want [in] a young striker, are all there" (Bradley), or "His issues are the same, as he goes up every level of play: his first touch, his ability to hold up the ball, his ability to be a little more assertive" (Arena), or "He's got a lot of raw talent, he's a nice big kid, but I think he's still got enormous development ahead" (Dowie). While his responses to such statements are always the right ones (his coaches are correct, his critics have a point, he's still got a long way to go), there are times when it's clear that he believes he should have earned more respect by now. The criticism has begun to eat at him, particularly offhand comments made by fans in Hull, where, as a tall black American piloting a white BMW 6-Series around a blue-collar port city, he is instantly recognizable. Earlier that Sunday he had attended a Hull City women's club match. As soon as he stepped out of his car, a mohawked teenager on a bike shouted at him, " 'Bout bloody time you got a win!"

"Thanks," Altidore said through gritted teeth as he pulled up the hood of his Louis Vuitton sweatshirt.

The wind at the field was stiff and unyielding, and after the first half Altidore retreated, shivering, to the warmth of his car. After the match, though, he joined the women's team for refreshments at the nearby Marist Sporting Club, a dingy place with pinball machines along the wall and a sign on the door that reads NO BOOTS IN THE CLUBHOUSE. As he sat down to watch a few blurry minutes of Liverpool versus Sunderland on the projection screen up front, a thickly set redhead in a Hull jersey, who was said to have scored two second-half goals, approached him. "You should have stayed for the second half," she said, grinning wryly. "I'd have taught you how to score."

"O.K.," said Jozy. A minute later he insisted that he was not bothered by the comment. Five minutes after that, though, he muttered, "She didn't even laugh when she said it."

At the Japanese restaurant Altidore said, "I need to learn a little bit more, but I think I'm getting to the point where I'm only going to learn so much. I want to be the man, the one that things will go through. I imagine this summer might outweigh anything else I've been a part of."

His expectations for Team USA are high. He said, "I expect us to get out of the group," which includes Rooney's powerful England and weaker Slovenia and Algeria. "From there we're going to open a lot of eyes. Whether that's going to the final and winning the whole thing, or beating the crap out of the best teams and just falling short, the time has come."

"Wasabi!" shouted the Japanese chef as he juggled bowls of rice.

Soon dinner was over, and Jozy signed the check, leaving a tip of �50 -- about $75 -- on a �70 bill. "Sir, I think you made a mistake," said the waitress.

"No, it's cool," Altidore said as he hurried out the door.

Says Dowie, "Before, Jozy was a man with a boy's mentality. Now he must be a man." He is a man in that he has taken responsibility for his family: By May he hopes to have moved them into a million-dollar house in Boca Raton with six bedrooms, a pool, a home theater and fans with their full complement of blades. "I'm excited to see my mom's face," he says.

He's a man in that, after two seasons in Spain and England, he finally seems to understand what it takes to succeed at the highest level of the world's game, and that he can no longer rely on natural talent alone.

And he's a man in that he now takes a wider view of life, particularly of the significance of what he and his U.S. teammates are trying to do. "I think we're all living the American dream," he says of the national team. Half or more of the 23-man World Cup roster is likely to be players with at least one parent who immigrated to the U.S., including captain Carlos Bocanegra, sweeper Oguchi Onyewu and, of course, Altidore. "Every time you play for our team and look at all the different nationalities that have come together to form it, that's America, that's what America represents� opportunity," he says. "And every game is an opportunity. A lot of guys, their families had to overcome something to get here. To win the Cup would be an incredible story."

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