HARRISON, N.J. – Some of the loudest cheers during the player introductions prior to Sunday’s exhibition between the U.S. and Turkey were reserved for forward Jozy Altidore, who was born in nearby Livingston, N.J. – about a dozen miles from Red Bull Arena – and who debuted for the New York Red Bulls as a 16-year-old.
Some of the enthusiasm surely was grounded in respect for the local lad made good. But it may also have been about offering Altidore, now 24, a bit of support before kickoff. The U.S. is scheduled to open the World Cup against Ghana in two weeks, and there’s plenty of concern about Altidore’s confidence. He hasn’t scored a goal of any kind since Dec. 4 and was benched toward the end of the English Premier League season as Sunderland orchestrated a dramatic escape from relegation. He last found the net for the U.S. in early October in a World Cup qualifying defeat of Jamaica. That was nearly eight months ago.
It would be reasonable for a forward to feel frustrated or beleaguered under those trying circumstances. But Altidore said here following the Americans’ 2-1 win, in which he did not score, that he’s feeling just fine about the way he’s playing. Goals or no, the U.S. has maintained its faith in Altidore, who almost surely will start in Brazil.
“Everybody’s so worried about my confidence. It’s unbelievable. My confidence is fine,” he said. “It’s not going to change whether I score a hat trick or I don’t score at all. I’m fine.”
Asked whether he’d be happy if he repeated Sunday afternoon’s performance in Brazil, he said, “Doesn’t matter how I play as long as we win.”
Altidore’s day against Turkey was the soccer equivalent of a bruising gridiron running game. It won’t make the highlight reels, but it wore down the opposition. He stayed high in the U.S. 4-4-2, often occupied multiple defenders and received and dished out plenty of punishment.
Altidore lacks sprinter’s speed, which can make it appear that he’s running at less than full tilt. But the effort required to battle defenders, find seams and hold up the ball under duress can be exhausting. And there were multiple occasions on Sunday where he either worked himself into position for a look at goal or helped create an opportunity for a teammate.
Altidore was especially active during a 20-minute stretch late in the second half. He helped spring Graham Zusi on a counter that resulted in a look at goal for Julian Green, had a breakaway opportunity called back for a foul in the 70th, sent an accurate cross to Mix Diskerud on the right post nine minutes later and then cut past a defender and saw his shot saved in the 81st. Altidore committed and drew fouls, kept the ball moving and was a factor on the field, if not the scoreboard. And that was noticed on both benches.
“We all wish that he puts the ball in the net. I was joking with him about that before the game,” U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. “[It was a] very energetic performance. He keeps the whole back line busy and that’s what the other coach sees. He can’t let any center back just go into midfield because he feels like [Altidore is] taking two guys on all the time.”
The other coach did see it. Asked to name the U.S. players that impressed him on Sunday, Turkey manager Fatih Terim, mentioned Altidore, Michael Bradley and “the right back,” goal scorer Fabian Johnson.
“He’s a very powerful striker, the type of striker that the center backs don’t like much,” Terim said of Altidore via an interpreter. “He likes to hold up the ball, therefore his teammates can take part in the attack. He’s a very important player.”
Captain Clint Dempsey scored the second goal on Sunday on an easy tap-in following a Turkish mistake in back. It’s the sort of chance that falls to an in-form player, and having experienced a drought of his own last fall, he’s cognizant of what Altidore’s enduring.
“He’s doing his part,” Dempsey said. “All he can do is keep trying to create chances. If you keep creating chances, you’re going to have opportunities to score. When everybody keeps talking about it and talking about it, hopefully he’s not paying any attention to that, because that’s something that’s not helping him as a player. I think he’s a strong character. He knows was he’s done in his career. He’s played a part in helping us qualify for the World Cup and I thought he played well today. He’s a handful.”
What he’s done is set a record for Americans playing abroad with 31 goals in a single season, set with AZ Alkmaar in 2012-13. He tallied eight for the U.S. in 2013 -- en route to U.S. Soccer Male Athlete of the Year honors -- and set a national team mark with goals in five consecutive appearances. Those numbers, along with Altidore’s unique physical presence, leave Klinsmann and Co. with little choice but to maintain their faith.
There is no comparable forward on the U.S. roster, no one who can act as a target or ball winner who can occupy and tire an opposing defense. And there’s no U.S. striker with game-breaking speed. Absent the ability to run through and behind a back four, the best plan is to pound and punish. That’s what Altidore can bring until his finishing touch returns. The U.S. is counting on it.
“He will kind of sooner or later break through with goals,” Klinsmann said. “You’ve got to stay hungry and grind it out and sooner or later it’s time and boom, the ball is in the net. You can see how he keeps an opponent busy and on their toes.”
Said Altidore, “If this is the way I have to help my team, to kind of work and get a run, then that’s what I have to do. It’s no problem. To have the opportunity to do that in a World Cup on the biggest stage, I’m excited about it.”