Jozy Altidore, the teenager in the Red Bulls' lineup
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Stop thinking of Freddy Adu of the D.C. United as the youngest player in the MLS.
The honor belongs to Jozy Altidore of the New York Red Bulls, the team that Adu and company will meet on Saturday in the opening leg of a home-and-home, first-round playoff series that will open at Giants Stadium.
Altidore is one of the big reasons the Red Bulls staged a late-season comeback under former U.S. national coach Bruce Arena, qualifying for the playoffs on their final day of the regular season. The 16-year-old made his MLS regular-season debut in early September and scored three goals in the final seven games, including two winners in contests New York could not afford to lose.
"I guess I know how to be in the right place at the right time," Altidore said after a Red Bulls practice. "If that's what it takes, that's fine."
The soon-to-be 17-year-old's comment downplays the importance of his contribution. He made his MLS debut as a late substitution against New England on Sept. 9 and scored his first goal a week later after replacing John Wolyniec in the 74th minute of a scoreless game against Columbus.
With 7 minutes to play, Altidore took a pass from Seth Stammler and beat Crew goalkeeper Bill Gaudette with a 30-yard shot for a 1-0 win. He would come off the bench two games later to score in a 4-3 loss to D.C. United. The Livingston native got his third in his first start the following week in a 1-0 win over Chicago.
Arena has left him in the starting lineup.
"Obviously, we had a kid who took advantage of a couple of opportunities and showed some promise," said Arena, who took over as coach in early August. "I felt, all things being equal, I wanted to go with a younger player and get an opportunity to develop him.
"That was one of the luxuries of coming to this team at that time," he added. "The expectations weren't that great. Not only could we deal with the short term of making the playoffs, but also look at the long term and get a player of that promise on the field."
Before Arena took over, Altidore had spent the season as a practice player under Mo Johnston and then interim coach Richie Williams.
A member of the U-17 national team, he was learning what it meant to be a professional while continuing his online high school education. He is in an accelerated program and should complete his senior year by this summer.
"I guess overnight Bruce got the idea of trying to give me a chance," said Altidore, who has lived in a hotel near Giants Stadium with his mother this season.
Like most teenagers, Altidore is having fun on the field. While his teammates were worried about making the playoffs, he seemed oblivious to the consequences of every game.
"To me, I felt no pressure at all," Altidore said. "I feel the pressure is not on, by relaxing. You relax, you play. The pressure is invisible and that's how I feel."
It is interesting to see the comparison between Altidore and Adu, who has been under a spotlight since he joined the league.
Adu started 29 of 32 games this season and had two goals and eight assists.
Altidore has used his speed and strength to pass that goal total already.
"We know where he has to go," Arena said of Altidore. "He has some work ahead of him, but certainly it has been worth the experiment of giving him a chance to play."
While the Red Bulls failed to post a win in four regular-season games against the United, Altidore feels the team is peaking with two wins and a tie in its last three outings.
"When I look at this team, I say we're in the playoffs because we worked our butts off," Altidore said. "It's anybody's game. We really want it as bad. Some people think we don't, but we really want it that badly. We can go as far as we want."