CAPE TOWN -- The last time before this World Cup that the U.S. team was in South Africa, for last June's Confederations Cup, Jozy Altidore and his then road roommate, Freddy Adu, were relaxing in their room at the Beauchesne Bush Lodge near Rustenburg -- where the team is again staying this month -- when they heard a persistent, light knocking on their door. We'll allow Altidore, the striker who was then 19 and is now 20, to recount what happened next, as he did in late March while driving around the streets of the English city of Hull, for whose Premier League club he played this past season. "I look through the peephole and I don't see anything," he recalled.
"Then I keep hearing the knocks, and I go back again and open the door, and there's a small little monkey just sitting there. It was cute, so we did what we're not supposed to do: we gave it a banana and peanuts. Surely enough, a little while later Charlie Davies and I were outside, and the monkey came back -- but he brought with him bigger ones. Much bigger ones. I was afraid, because they were running right at me, and they were pretty big, and there were a lot of them. Charlie was like, "Jozy, DON'T RUN. DON'T MOVE." But they got to about 15 yards away, and I thought it was a little too close, so we took off, with them running right behind us. We just barely made it inside and locked the door, and the monkeys were going crazy outside -- they were on the roof and everything."
The beasts eventually dissipated, allowing Altidore and Davies, his friend and fellow forward, to escape their room. The next day, the pair helped the U.S. pull off one of the most important victories in American soccer history, a 3-0 win over Egypt in the South African city of Rustenberg that allowed them to improbably slip into the knockout rounds, and more improbably still all the way to the tournament final. Davies scored the first goal. "We were so relaxed because we had to win 3-0 to qualify, and a lot of people thought we couldn't do it -- the monkey encounter might have been the winning factor for us," Altidore joked. Then he added, more seriously, "I imagine this summer might outweigh anything else I've been a part of."
"This summer" is now here -- or, rather, this winter, as is the case in the southern hemisphere -- and so is Altidore, and so are the scheming monkeys. Although one presumes that Altidore this time declined to share his banana and peanuts in the run-up to Saturday night's opening match 1-1 draw against England, which was also played in Rustenberg. Davies, however, is not here, the victim of a terrible car crash last October from which he could not recover in time, and neither is the former prodigy Adu, the victim of unrealized or perhaps improperly assigned potential. As was made clear on Saturday night, those players' absences have put more of the load than ever as concerns the U.S. side's ultimate performance in this World Cup on Altidore.
"The starting points, when you think about what you would want to have with a young striker, are all there with Jozy," U.S. coach Bob Bradleysaid a few months ago. "The process is now being able to take the things that he's always relied on -- his instincts to get away from defenders, his instincts to find a little space, to get off shots, take chances -- it's now to do those things in better games."
Saturday's match against England was clearly one of those "better games," and while it was a terrific result for the U.S. -- and one that would probably have been far worse if not for the gritty heroics of American goalie Tim Howard, and one stunning bungle by English keeper Robert Green -- it could also possibly have been better, and the one player who could have realistically made it that way was Altidore. This is not by any means a criticism of him. Throughout his 86 minutes on the pitch, he was an active, disruptive and an energetic force -- he showed none of the moments of fecklessness for which he is sometimes censured -- and he showed that he's firmly moved past the point where the skills Bradley attributed to him constitute just starting points. He created for himself two chances to net the goal that would have turned out to be the winning one for the Americans, the first in the 18th minute when he got his head on a bending Landon Donovan cross just in front of the goal mouth, and an even better one in the 64th, when he demonstrated both advanced ball control and speed in burning defender Jamie Carragher down the left side, curling toward the goal and releasing a low, on-target shot toward the near post.
That header, though, was merely glancing -- it was never a real threat -- and the shot was deflected by Green and caromed off the crossbar. Result: the U.S. had an admirable draw, and not a shocking win. It was clear that for the U.S. to pull off something really stunning and sustained in this tournament, chances like those are going to have to be converted by Altidore. Robbie Findley, Davies' replacement, flashed the searing pace that made him a surprise addition to the roster, but he didn't display Davies' creativity or technical skill -- the television commentators more than once sarcastically noted that Findley had executed a "kick of fresh air," meaning that he had attempted to strike the ball but missed it completely. More worrying was that the U.S. defense seemed porous throughout, and particularly wore down in the second half, just as it did in the loss in the Confederations Cup final against Brazil. It was clear that England coach Fabio Capello had sensed its soft underbelly early on, and at halftime commanded his men to attack, attack, attack -- and only Howard bailed out the U.S., time and again imploring his defenders to do better after another of his saves. In other words, the U.S. side is going to have to score, and score often, to advance here, and it can't always count on the opposing goalkeeper to allow a rather weak 25-yard Clint Dempsey shot to trickle past him.
Watching the proceedings in Cape Town were a few hundred American ex-pats, invited to a viewing party at the six-star One and Only hotel by Chuck Blazer, an American member of the FIFA executive committee, and Consul General Dr. Alberta G.J. Mayberry. (The actress Halle Berry was on the guest list, but, alas, she didn't show). Hot dogs and sliders were served, but the event still had a distinctly African feel -- waiters passed around long strips of biltong, the dried meat snack that is favored here, and the inescapable sound of vuvuzelas rang out, often blown by American lips at what seemed to be the wrong time (although, to be fair, it has quickly become apparent to anyone who is both attending this tournament and has ears, that there is never either a right or a wrong time to blow a vuvuzela). But the American fans surprised the many South Africans and Brits in attendance with their attention to and passion for the game -- they bellowed chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" after Dempsey's goal, prompting a reporter from the Cape Argus, a local newspaper, to skeptically inquire as to whether Americans are always this much into the world's game.
The answer was sometimes, but mostly not, as they haven't historically had much to bellow about. After Saturday's draw, there is a chance, even if it's small, that that could change over the next month. If so, it is now more evident than ever that a central role will need to be played by Altidore, the 20-year-old striker who battled the monkeys off the pitch the last time he was in Africa.