A son of Haitian immigrants, 20-year old Jozy Altidore will carry the goal-scoring hopes of the U.S. in South Africa. After a rollicking year of highs and lows, can he fulfill his vast potential at the right time?
Wasabi!" shouts the teppanyaki chef as he flips an egg onto the top of his toque. It's a Sunday evening in early spring, 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, 6'1" 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.
Altidore's youth had been more evident eight months earlier as he sat thigh-to-thigh with the five other members of his immediate family—his father, Joseph; his mother, Gisele; his older brother, Janak; and his older sisters, Lindsay and Sadia—on a couch 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—specifically, about Gisele's desire for him to attend college. Janak has a degree in finance. Lindsay and Sadia are studying to be nurses like their mother. To Gisele a degree is essential to success in the U.S., and in the broader world.
"College life is beautiful," she said. "I wish you had a little of college. It would teach you decision making and a lot of things."
May 2, 2010
"Ma ...," said Jozy, glancing at a BlackBerry, feet propped up on a soccer ball.
"It is wrong that you haven't gone. Wrong. Yes, go to school, and at least stay a year in college, and life would be better."
Altidore would later admit he sometimes thinks about what it would be like to walk around a college campus with a book-laden backpack, to earn money 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 sounded like a soft definitely. Jozy Altidore might be the age of a college sophomore, but his life already includes accomplishments more noteworthy than mastery of Intro Psych. He's been a pro for four years, having scored his first goal in his 18th minute of play as a 16-year-old for MLS's New York Red Bulls, a 30-yard laser that seemed to portend the dawning of a new era. At 18 he was the youngest player to score for the U.S. national team in the modern era; at 19 he became the youngest U.S. international to score a hat trick. Two summers ago the Spanish club Villarreal coughed up $10 million—roughly double MLS's previous high transfer fee—to acquire him. Hull signed Altidore on loan for 2009--10, and his first experience in the world's richest league was one of ups and down: While his size and strength often made him a handful for defenders, Altidore scored just one goal in 29 appearances, and his season effectively came to an end with a red-card ejection last Saturday in a 1--0 loss to Sunderland that all but assured Hull's relegation from the Premiership.
Altidore is the sort of natural athlete who usually gravitates towards a more traditionally American sport in the U.S., but he resisted the pull of the hardwood or the football field thanks to his father's passion for soccer. Now he has the potential to become what many before him were supposed to be but were not: an American who matters in the world's game. He will enter the World Cup in South Africa this June as arguably the U.S. side's most dangerous goal-scoring threat, and he will be asked to bear on his precociously broad shoulders a significant portion of American soccer's collective dream—to make an impact on the world's biggest sporting stage, in a tournament in which the U.S. has not advanced to the semifinals since 1930.
In other words, despite Gisele's wishes, college can wait.
One way to know you've entered a home where soccer players were raised is to look up at a ceiling fan. It might wobble. It might be dinged. It might be cracked. Or, as in the Altidore's kitchen, it might have been reduced long ago to a wreck, its blades broken off by balls blasted by growing feet from a makeshift penalty spot in the adjoining living room. "I knew if I put in another fan," says Joseph, "they were going to break it again."
The Altidores live in a tidy four-bedroom ranch-style house on a corner lot in one of those sun-soaked Florida neighborhoods where the manicured bermuda-grass lawns grow thick and springy. It's the type of house Joseph and Gisele could not have conceived of when they were growing up in poverty-stricken Haiti during the violent 30-year rule of the Duvaliers. Joseph lived in four iron-sheet-roofed rooms on his family's subsistence farm near the town of Les Cayes. Gisele shared 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 the capital, Port-au-Prince.
In 1973, at age 23, Gisele emigrated to New Jersey, and Joseph arrived a year later, when he was 23. They met on a New Jersey Transit number 20 bus; Joseph was returning home from his job as a busboy at the Friar Tuck Inn in Cedar Grove, and Gisele stepped up through the folding doors, took one look at the handsome young Haitian already on board and promptly 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. Even while holding down full-time jobs, both earned degrees from Essex County College, Joseph in electronics and Gisele in nursing. After that, she worked overnight shifts at the hospital, from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. He arose at four each weekday morning to begin his rounds as a deliveryman for FedEx. Finally, in 1993, after a stop in Coral Springs, Fla., the couple had saved enough to afford a down payment on the house in Boca.
In between the work, there was play. Joseph made sure of it. Each Altidore child showed aptitude for soccer; Janak spent some time in the U.S. development system, and Sadia was a collegiate fullback at East Carolina and Florida International. The youngest, though, was a natural. One Saturday in 1998, when Joseph took eight-year-old Jozy and some other boys to play pickup soccer in Boca's South County Regional Park, an observer walked by and stopped in his tracks.
Josef Schulz played in 418 games in the Austrian Bundesliga and had been the general manager of the club Rapid Vienna. He had written an 800-page dissertation on soccer training and administration for his doctorate in economics from the University of Vienna. In Boca Raton he had planned to spend his retirement taking relaxing walks in the park with his wife, Barbara. Then he saw how an eight-year-old stranger was playing the game he loved, and he knew retirement would have to wait.
"I said to my wife, 'Look at this player! This is impossible that this is America!'" Schulz recalls in a Schwarzeneggerian cadence. "The most important thing that impressed me was the mental part. Although it was only a pickup game, the understanding of the runs he did! He made sprints into open spaces you can't even dream from somebody who is 12 or 13. I never saw an eight-year-old that talented, even in Europe."
Schulz marched up to Joseph. "I asked if he would consider if his son would like to train with a professional coach," Schulz says. "I told him if this would be the case, he would end up on the national team of the United States 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 formed a soccer school with Jozy and four other boys. They trained four times a week, at first as an outlaw band of ball-kicking youngsters chased from field to field by permit-demanding park authorities, sometimes forced to practice on a patch of grass next to U.S. Route 441. So began a run in which Schulz's growing team, led by Jozy, would win with such regularity that other top youth clubs would drop out of tournaments when they saw the cheekily named Boca Juniors in their bracket.
Jozy spent seventh and eighth grades at Boca Prep on a scholarship funded by the private school's most famous alumnus, tennis star Andy Roddick. After two months as a freshman at West Boca High, in November 2004 he left for the U.S. national team's residency program at IMG Academy, across the state in Bradenton. Altidore had been there a little more than a year when the Red Bulls (then called the MetroStars) selected him 17th overall in the January 2006 MLS draft. In 37 MLS appearances over the next year and a half he scored 15 goals, and at age 18 was on his way to Europe. But if anyone had a notion that this teenager from Florida would 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 the continent's lifeblood—well, it quickly became clear that it wouldn't be as easy as that.
It was April 2009, and Jozy Altidore was in a predicament familiar to many teenagers: His car had just broken down, and he was waiting in a supermarket parking lot for his mom to come pick him up. "I don't know what happened," he said. "The engine just started smoking. I'm like, Oh, God."
This supermarket, though, was located in Jerez de la Frontera, a town in Spain's Andalusia region, and the car belonged to Xerez CD, the second-division club to which Villarreal had loaned Altidore for the second half of the 2008--09 season. It was not the first, nor would it be the last, of Altidore's difficulties in Spain. He struggled with the language; he struggled with the food; he struggled to adapt to the pace of life. "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. Everything's closed. It's annoying!" Not every Spaniard was pleased that Altidore became the first American to score a goal in La Liga (for Villarreal, in November 2008), either. One day he emerged from his apartment to find that someone had painted the words ¬°fuera americano! ("American, get out!") on his car.
The troubles didn't entirely abate after his move to England. In October, Altidore showed up late for a match and found himself off the day's roster—and he exacerbated the friction with Hull manager Phil Brown when he publicly apologized on his Twitter account. More disconcerting were his struggles on the pitch. Here was the American wunderkind, the $10 million man, and he played in just six games for Villarreal and none for Xerez. Here was one of the most richly paid players in Hull City history, earning around $40,000 a week, and he scored just one goal; that's 25 fewer than Manchester United's Wayne Rooney, who'll be the opposing striker when the U.S. plays its first game of the World Cup, against England in Rustenburg, South Africa, on June 12.
One problem, say Altidore's coaches, is that Jozy has always had a problem maintaining his intensity in day-to-day training, and sometimes in matches. "A good striker has to help on days when he doesn't score goals," says U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley, who has been intently following Altidore's experiences in Europe. "You've got to show your teammates that in hard games, you're somebody they can count on."
"He's a laid-back lad, to be fair, and sometimes he can train like that," says Iain Dowie, who took over as Hull's manager in mid-March when Brown was placed on that peculiar British institution of gardening leave, in which gardening is optional but leaving is not. "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."
Says Altidore, "I've been hearing it for a long time. I might come off to people as nonchalant, but it's just laid-back, you know? You go to a training session, everybody's into it, yelling, getting after it. That's not my thing. I don't really yell. The energy I put out there [is equal to] anybody else's, but I think they just want to see it verbally."
The knockout rounds of last June's Confederations Cup in South Africa illustrated Altidore's strengths and weaknesses—how he can sometimes look like the world-class force for which American soccer pines, and sometimes look like much less. "We so badly desire a superstar," says L.A. Galaxy coach Bruce Arena, who ran the U.S. national team from 1998 to 2006 and coached the Red Bulls when Altidore made his professional debut. "Every time a young kid does something positive, we get pretty excited. But we need to be patient. Can he develop into a top-flight forward? Of course he can. But there's a long way to go."
In the U.S.'s 2--0 semifinal upset of world No. 1 Spain, Altidore was aggressive and disruptive throughout. 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 keeper, for the first goal. But four days later against Brazil—and particularly against L√∫cio, the rugged defender and captain—Altidore failed to get off a single shot in an eventual 3--2 loss.
"I was in S√£o Paulo at the time, and I watched in a bar with 500 Brazilians," Schulz says. "After the goal he scored against Spain, everyone in Brazil was scared about Josmer. Then, nothing. The Brazilian fans could not believe that Josmer didn't even seem to be trying in this game. I love him to death, but I think he should be consistently on a much higher level than he is."
Says Jozy, "He's right. I don't think I was good in that game. It was hard for me playing L√∫cio. He was very physical. It was the first time I was faced with a defender like that."
"He's learning that he needs a bit more devil in his game," says Dowie, 45, himself a former Premier League striker. "If he finds that devil in his game, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
Under Dowie, Altidore seemed to be finding that devil. In a home game against Dempsey's Fulham side on March 27, he 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, Altidore had drawn a penalty kick, which teammate Jimmy Bullard converted for the game-winning goal, and no fewer than six other free kicks, and time and again he disrupted Fulham as it tried to initiate an attack in its backfield. The 24,361 fans in attendance, sophisticated enough to judge a player by more than his statistical bottom line, gave him a standing ovation as he trotted off the pitch, chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" ringing out from the stands of Hull's KC Stadium.
But last Saturday's Sunderland match showed the dangers of too much passion—or maybe just the effects on Altidore of a long, frustrating season in England. With Hull trailing 1--0 in stoppage time of the first half, he and defender Alan Hutton became entangled, and the two tumbled to the ground. Hutton tossed the ball at the back of Altidore's head; Jozy responded by scrambling to his feet and delivering a glancing head-butt to Hutton's face. Both players were ejected, and Altidore's mandatory three-match ban means he won't play in Hull's final two games, and likely never again don Hull's black and orange. The club was already struggling financially, and with relegation Hull will likely not be in position to keep Altidore.
"For the first time in a long time I really lost my composure," a contrite Altidore said the next day by phone. "I was disappointed in myself. It was a really big game for the club and the city, and I felt like I let them down. It was tough to know I wasn't going to help the team any further when I was walking off the pitch. I have to remember the feeling, remember how the situation made me react and not let it happen again."
Of his Premier League trial by fire, he added, "It was a crazy year. I went through a lot of things you wouldn't see at the biggest, most glamorous clubs. I think I grew as a player, became a little bit more confident. It definitely toughened me up. If anything, at the beginning I was a bit naive. Now I understand how it is, how to approach everything from training to games. All around, I've been sharpened. This summer I want to apply everything I've been learning."
He was precisely seven weeks from getting his chance to do just that.
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"He needs a bit more devil in his game," says Dowie. "If he finds that, he's going to be a force to be reckoned with."
"I've been sharpened," Jozy says of his time at Hull City. "Now I understand how to approach everything."