Jozy's no joke
Ives Galarcep looks at how Premier League flop Jozy Altidore has proved a key player for the USA.
Last Updated: 25/06/10 6:14pm
Jozy Altidore is the youngest member of the USA squad but being only 20 hasn't stopped him from emerging as one of the team's most important players during their dream World Cup run.
It isn't Altidore's age that is making the difference in South Africa though; it is a change in style that has seen the former Hull City striker emerge as a battering-ram forward.
Altidore is overwhelming defenders with his strength and aggression, while also scaring them with his speed. He is drawing fouls and free kicks from the opposition - if Fifa kept a stat for yellow cards drawn, Altidore would be leading the tournament.
It isn't a role the American striker envisaged when he was a kid growing up in Florida. Back then, he would never have thought of taking on the role played by physical forwards like former US star Brian McBride.
"I definitely was one of the guys, when I was younger, thinking 'Aw, McBride's not flashy. He's boring. I hate watching this guy,'" Altidore said. "But now, after being in the position I understand how important his part of the game was and how important he is to a team. I know understand what it takes to be that type of player."
The type of player Altidore has been at the World Cup is an imposing figure who runs at defenders every chance he gets, and beats defenders who try to contain his powerful 6' 1" frame. His newly-discovered willingness to play the role of target striker has given the American team a new and sorely-needed dimension that makes it much tougher for opposing defences to just focus on established stars Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey.
"When Jozy plays the way he's been playing, we're a different team," Donovan said. "He puts fear in every defender he comes against.
"He hasn't scored, but he's done a lot of things for our team and you have to assume at some point he's going to get his goal."
Altidore has learned quickly, but his education as a target striker came before he arrived in South Africa - It began with his loan to the Tigers. Altidore wanted the move to England not only to play in the world's toughest league, but also to help him become a more rounded player. While he didn't get as many minutes as he would have hoped at the KC Stadium, the experience he did gain in a physically-demanding league has resulted in a player who is better equipped to fight, and win, the battles with opposing central defenders.
It hasn't just been those battles that Altidore has fought in recent years. He has faced his share of adversity since his million move from Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls to Spanish club Villarreal in the summer of 2008. He was unable to get minutes with Villarreal as an 18-year-old, and a loan to Spanish second division club Xerez was a disaster. He never played a minute for the club, with the low point being after he had toe-nail surgery that sidelined him and basically ended any chance of him playing for Xerez that season.
"You're kind of forced to grow up, in terms of the expectations that are put on you from people at home," Altidore said of his time in Europe. "I don't like to fail, so having those things not go my way early on, I just wanted to reverse them as quickly as possible.
"It wasn't easy, and it still isn't going to be easy, but for me, my family plays a huge role in the way they support me and believe in me. They're honest with me. They tell me when I'm good, tell me when I'm bad, and those type of things make you a stronger person."
"You can tell that he's learned from tough situations with clubs when things just haven't come easily," said U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. "That's part of the process for a young player. He's handled those challenges well and, again, he's grown and matured.
"In this tournament, in tough games, he's been a presence, he's kept going. In the second half, when we've needed him to be stronger, he's been there.
"It's just a sign of a talented young player who's continuing to grow and step up. He's become a real important man in our team."
How important? Altidore delivered the headed pass that set up Michael Bradley's equaliser in the United States' 2-2 draw with Slovenia, and he delivered the pass to Clint Dempsey that led to the shot that was saved and eventually fell to Donovan for the dramatic winner against Algeria.
Altidore hasn't scored a goal in this World Cup - in fact he only managed to find the net once during his spell at Hull City - but he isn't worried about his stats as the team prepare to face Ghana on Saturday.
"In tournaments like this, you can't be worried about how you do individually," Altidore said. "You have the chance to do something special with the team, and that's the most important thing."
That doesn't mean Altidore isn't dreaming of finally hitting the net for his first World Cup goal. He came closest against Algeria, when he sent a close-range shot over the crossbar.
"I think I should have goals by now," Altidore said. "I think I've been unlucky and overly excited perhaps, but I think I should have goals by now.
"I'm not worried about it. The good sign is that the chances are coming. That's the good thing. I really am not bothered by it by any means. I'm just looking forward to us progressing as far as we can."
How far the Americans go will depend largely on how well Altidore plays. Against Ghana, Altidore will take part in one of the game's most important match-ups as he does battle with Ghana central defender John Mensah. Altidore knows another physical contest awaits, but he isn't worried. He knows that if he keeps doing what he's been doing, both he and the USA will create chances.
He is only 20, but Jozy Altidore has been forced to grow up in a hurry, and is newly-found maturity will be key to a US team hoping to make history this summer.
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the US national team and Major League Soccer.