JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — His work complete for the day, Jozy Altidore walked into the room wearing two heavy dog tags, gifts to the U.S. World Cup players from a group of military members on Friday here. The tags, which landed with a thunk on the table when he sat down, bore American flags and a universal engraved message for a group of athletes about to represent the U.S. on the world stage:
STAY FIT! STAY STRONG! STAY RESILIENT!
“This is probably the best gift I’ve ever gotten,” said Altidore, who had just scored both U.S. goals in a 2-1 win against Nigeria, the last game before the start of the World Cup in Brazil. “To know that [the U.S. military] respects what we’re doing is an amazing feeling.”
Stay resilient! The message on those dog tags probably fits Altidore better than any other U.S. player. Strikers go through ups and downs more than players at any other position, and after a terrific 2013 with the national team (where he was the U.S. male player of the year) and at the club level with AZ Alkmaar, Altidore struggled this season at Sunderland, scoring just twice in all competitions.
He hadn’t scored for the U.S. either in 2014 until Saturday, when Altidore struck first on a tap-in at the end of a marvelous build-up and then thundered home the eventual game-winner after skinning Nigeria’s Joseph Yobo.
“World class,” said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann afterward. “I think it will give him a lot of confidence. It’s always a tough period when you don’t score for a striker and everybody lets you know that. So you get more and more anxious about the situation, and you work harder and harder, which he did the last three-and-a-half weeks in camp … And then you just wish that the moment comes and you put it in there, and then you go and start to be your own self again.”
On Friday, when goalkeeper Tim Howard was talking about earning his 100th cap, he was asked to name his favorite U.S. game and immediately referred to the 2-0 victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup semifinal. It was hard not to think about that seminal win again on Saturday as Altidore finished with authority in the same way that he did five years ago against Iker Casillas to help end Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak.
Altidore was just 19 then, and it was impossible not to think the U.S. might have found its first player who could become a world-class center forward. Strong and skilled, blessed with a cannon of a shot, Altidore has always had the potential to break new ground for Americans in the world’s game. We’ve certainly seen it in moments for the national team and during parts of his club career in the Netherlands, if not yet in England.
“We know we have a striker who had a tough year at Sunderland, but everyone knows he has so much talent, so much potential,” Klinsmann said. “We just want it to come through, which it did last summer tremendously in our World Cup qualifying campaign. So we see him being back on the right track.”
Klinsmann also pointed out that Altidore needs delivery from his teammates, and he got that against Nigeria. Michael Bradley sent him a great ball on the second goal, and Fabian Johnson made another surgical run up-field from the right back position before giving Altidore the assist on his first goal.
Johnson’s last four assists for the U.S. come on goals scored by Altidore. “He’s my roommate,” said Altidore. “You see what he brings. He’s up and down, he can score goals, he creates them. He’s a problem for other teams.”
So too is Altidore, especially over the last two games. If he can continue doing that in Brazil (STAY FIT! STAY STRONG! STAY RESILIENT!), there’s no reason the U.S. couldn’t recreate the same magic it had against Spain in 2009. Potential can be a loaded word, but it’s also a synonym for possibility, and on days like Saturday Altidore can see the potential for something special at this World Cup.
“I think it’s there,” he said.