SANDY, Utah — Jurgen Klinsmann is without a doubt the first coach in the history of the U.S. men's national team who uses the word "awesome" in press conferences. In fact, the West Coast transplant would be perfect for a cameo role in that Saturday Night Live skit "The Californians." Consider Klinsmann's take on Jozy Altidore, who tied a U.S. men's record by scoring in his fourth straight game in Tuesday's 1-0 win against Honduras.
"It's not only that he scored those goals," Klinsmann said. "The work that he does for the team is awesome."
You know what? The coach is right. The U.S. is as little as one game away from clinching a berth in World Cup 2014, not least because Altidore, has started fulfilling the potential he showed when he scored against Spain in the Confederations Cup four years ago. At the time, it was probably too soon for anyone to anoint Altidore as the next great U.S. center-forward. His up-and-down club performance proved that.
But now, Altidore might be on the verge of stardom. First came the 31 goals in all competitions last season at AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands. And after a sputtering 45-minute performance in a friendly loss to Belgium in late May — in which Altidore got sick during the game — something just clicked. He connected with midfielder Graham Zusi for goals in two straight games and on Tuesday the assist-man was Fabian Johnson for the second straight game.
"I just think it's all coming together on the field," Altidore said after Tuesday's win. "Especially with the stretch we've had playing together, we kind of get used to each other. It's always difficult on [short] fixture dates with a new coach who's trying to bring some new ideas. This month gave us a chance to really all sit down and work on our offense together."
As Altidore grows older and gains experience, he doesn't appear to let frustration get the better of him. When he scored last week against Panama, it came just two minutes after the referee failed to give him what looked like a penalty call in the box. And when he scored the game-winner Tuesday, it came just 14 minutes after an Altidore goal was disallowed (correctly, it turned out) when he was a hair offside.
Just as this U.S. team might not have won a tough game like Tuesday's a few months ago, can we be sure Old Jozy would have bounced back to score those goals in similar situations? After a 2012 in which Altidore fell behind his U.S. teammates during the summer and was even dropped by Klinsmann for a spell last October, he showed up ready and willing in Cleveland at the end of May.
"From day one, Jozy was spot on," Klinsmann said. "He looked sharp, he looked good, he looked hungry. The game in Cleveland was a bit disappointing from a result point of view, but we had a feeling that he's high-energy, he's looking forward to it, he's positive. And he was coming off a tremendous season with Alkmaar on a personal level."
For Klinsmann, it's not just that Altidore is scoring goals. The coach kept using words like "energy" and "hungry" to describe the way Altidore has embraced Klinsmann's wish for high-pressure defending and ball-winning, to say nothing of working with Clint Dempsey to engineer chances for the U.S. up top. As a result, Dempsey doesn't have to worry as much about scoring as he did in the past year, when he was the U.S.'s only consistent goal threat.
Even Altidore told me in early May while he was buying into Klinsmann's system, he didn't feel like a natural fit. Not like he does at his club team, anyway. But Tuesday he indicated that fitting into what Klinsmann wants is an ongoing process, one in which he's making rapid gains.
"It's definitely tough," Altidore said. "In terms of I had to go away from someone who I played for for four years and learn something different. It's all about finding a personal relationship. A lot of people are going to jump ship and say things, but at the end of the day the players have to be patient and believe in what we're doing. And when you do the success will come."
As goalkeeper Tim Howard said, "A lot has been made of Jozy's form, but he scored more than 30 goals this season. So that's not a striker who is out of form. It's exactly the opposite. He's super-confident. He's our money man. Him and Clint, they have to carry the load. Jozy is sometimes up there on his own when Clint drops into midfield to try and create. I've said it before: We'll ride Jozy as far as we can take him. He knows that pressure is on his back, and he's performed really well."
Thanks in large part to Altidore's breakout June, the U.S. has a chance to clinch a berth to Brazil 2014 in September, either at Costa Rica or at home against archrival Mexico. Either scenario would be a sweet one for a team that earned a perfect nine out of nine points in three qualifiers this month.
"We'll be licking our chops," Altidore said when I asked him about September. "That's what we want: To qualify as early as possible so we can try to solidify the things that we still lack. It's there for the taking."
And, as the coach himself might say, that's awesome.