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Altidore's game growing by leaps and bounds

Jozy Altidore could be the one.

It's almost sacrilege to think it, let alone say it out loud. But American soccer fans can't help but wonder just how good the gifted, soft-spoken 17-year-old can be.

As much progress as the United States has made over the past two decades -- ending a 40-year World Cup drought in 1990, hosting the most successful Cup ever four years later, and boasting a league that attracted David Beckham and a national team that has played in the past five Cups -- this 300 million-strong nation has yet to produce a genuine homegrown superstar.

"We're still waiting for that great American striker to emerge," goalkeeper Kasey Keller told Reuters at last year's World Cup, where U.S. forwards couldn't manage a single goal. "That guy that Real Madrid has to have and will pay 30 million euros for, the guy who then goes on to lead the La Liga in scoring for three or four years in a row."

The masses once were encouraged to believe a boy named Freddy Adu would be That Guy, and the out-of-whack expectations that followed his 3½ years in MLS led several pundits to hysterically declare him a bust before his 18th birthday. So it's refreshing that everyone with a smidgen of common sense in the intimate world of American soccer is bending over backward to quash the expectations that slowly but surely are being thrust upon the domestic game's latest, most precocious young talent.

"The problem is always going to be how the press wants to blow things out of proportion every time a new kid comes along," says Bruce Arena, the longtime national team coach who now is Altidore's boss at the New York Red Bulls. "He's still got a long way to go."

Josmer Volmy Altidore has just 26 professional games under his belt, but he already has come awfully far in the space of twelve months. He's sitting on a black leather ottoman in the greenroom of a swanky Manhattan production studio on a workday afternoon in early August, a cell phone jammed to his ear. Above his head is a poster-sized cover of FIFA 08, the latest incarnation of the most popular soccer video game. On it, global icon Ronaldinho, only the best footballer on the planet, flashes his trademark bucked-tooth grin, and right next to him is a beaming Altidore. Taking in this scene, it's hard to believe that a year earlier he hadn't played a minute of pro ball.

Announcing his arrival

He first stepped into an MLS match on Sept. 9, 2006. A week later, just 18 minutes into his career, he announced his arrival with a 30-yard screamer that sailed into the top right corner of stunned Columbus Crew goalkeeper Bill Gaudette's net.

And the kid hasn't stopped scoring since. Altidore finished last season with four goals (two were game-winners) and became the youngest to ever strike in the playoffs. He has potted eight more in just 1,087 minutes, or about 12 full games, this season. And his four goals in five matches at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in July put him among the tourney leaders, despite being the baby of the U.S. team.

"Even the people that don't know soccer know somebody who scores a goal," says Arena, brushing off observers' increasing fascination with the prodigy.

Arena is understandably protective of the Jersey-born, Florida-reared phenom. The Red Bulls have a vested interest in keeping his young star grounded; if he is still around, the kid could help one of the league's worst-drawing teams fill a new 25,000-seat stadium slated to open in 2009.

Others don't hold back. "He's gonna be unbelievable," says Toronto FC manager Mo Johnston, the former Red Bulls coach who took Altidore 17th overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft.

Critics reel off the names of onetime MLS starlets who faded after making a good first impression. But there is reason to believe Altidore is different, for he has a lot more going for him than that instinctive scoring touch. To start, he is built like a tank. He routinely is called a man-child, and the tag fits to a tee. He has gained three inches since his debut and now stands a sturdy 6-foot-1 and counting: "Doc says I'll be 6-foot-3 when I'm done."

"No other players look like him," says Arena, who, despite the mother-hen routine, can't help gushing a bit when asked to describe what makes the youngster special. "There's speed combined with his physical qualities and a very good sense for goal. When he's facing a defender, he's very good going at him, which is kind of unusual for a player that size. You don't see those kind of qualities often."

Altidore has been able to out-muscle even the biggest MLS defenders, and some have resorted to using cheap shots and intimidation tactics to stop him, so far unsuccessfully. But the most impressive weapon in the youngster's arsenal might be between his ears.

Mental strength

It's no secret that the best players in any sport are the ones who are strongest mentally. And despite his early success, Altidore apparently operates with a complete absence of ego. He comes across as thoughtful and intelligent and genuinely nice. And he seems to strike that elusive balance between utter self-assurance and a down-to-earth disposition like a sitter into the side netting.

"He's a young kid that listens to you, so it's really up to him to be as good as he wants," says Red Bulls star Juan Pablo Angel, who, with Altidore, has formed the most fearsome strike force the league has seen in years.

Angel might be the perfect mentor for the teenager. Not only is the Colombian among the most decorated goal-getters in his country's history, he is a consummate professional with an unequaled work ethic. He also speaks flawless English after seven largely successful seasons with Premier League mainstay Aston Villa. Plus, Angel, a power forward himself, has been near the top of the MLS scoring chart since arriving in May. Says the apprentice: "He does everything so smooth and so fluidly. It sort of shows you what the hard work and the practice is going to get you."

Arena credits Altidore's Haitian immigrant parents, Joseph and Gisele, for instilling such values in their youngest child. In particular, Altidore's mother is a "tremendous influence" in her son's life, according to the coach. Altidore lives with her in a Montclair apartment, and she drives him to practice (he still doesn't have a license) and to his classes at Passaic Community College where, at her insistence, he enrolled this month. His father, still three years from retiring from his job at FedEx, and Altidore's siblings -- brother Janak, 26, and sisters Lindsay, 25, and Sadia, 20 -- remain in Florida.

"He's very mature, and I think it has to do with his upbringing," Arena says. "He's very respectful around the adults in his life. More often than not, he's seen and not heard. He understands it. Some of the other young promising kids coming up have been their [own] greatest advocates. Jozy isn't. He just goes about his business and lets his play do the talking."

It is precisely this combination of skill, size, youth and attitude that makes Altidore such an alluring prospect for wealthy European clubs. They will bust out the checkbooks during the next transfer window in January, and Altidore conveniently will have turned 18, the age of consent for Euros to cherry-pick talent from other continents.

Making the jump overseas

Richard Motzkin, the agent who represents Altidore, Adu and a host of established U.S. internationals, is predictably coy when discussing his youngest client's future. But he doesn't deny strong interest in him. "Jozy has raised a lot of eyebrows internationally with his performance," Motzkin says. "He's on a lot of clubs' radar screens."

Many insiders are convinced Altidore will fetch more than double the MLS-record $4 million that Fulham paid for Clint Dempsey earlier this year. But even if a club is willing to make a $10 million wager on him, it still is chump change compared to the prices being paid for his peers on the world market. This summer, Liverpool spent $23 million on Dutchman Ryan Babel, 20, while AC Milan coughed up a cool $30 mil for Alexandre Pato, the 18-year-old Brazilian who Altidore out-gunned when the Yanks upset the Samba Boys 2-1 (guess who had both U.S. goals?) at the U-20 World Cup.

Three of his U-20 teammates already have made the jump overseas. Adu left MLS six weeks after becoming eligible. But while Motzkin insists the immediate goals for Altidore are to play for the U.S. national team and help the Olympic squad qualify for the 2008 Games in Beijing, the player sounds ready to go if the right club comes calling. "I'm not going to lie, things might come through," says Altidore, whose MLS contract expires in 2011. "[But] it has to be something that somebody really believes in my abilities and not just a quick fix. There's really no rush for me to do anything too quickly."

Still, the evidence suggests Altidore would relish playing on a bigger stage. He proved as much Aug. 18, when the circus came to town.

Most of the 66,237 fans at Giants Stadium that night were there to see Beckham bend his balls, and the L.A. Galaxy's leading man didn't disappoint, delivering two glorious dead-ball assists. And although it was Angel who sent the people home happy with a late winner, Altidore stole the show with two spectacular second-half strikes in what probably was the best MLS game ever played. For the record, the ever-gracious Becks afterward called his teenage opponent a "great player."

But Altidore admits he is far from the finished article. He constantly is perfecting his technique -- "Tons of big guys have terrible feet," he says -- and knows that improving his fitness will transform him into a true 90-minute player. Arena insists he also must continue to develop his first touch, which will become more important at the next level, where the game speeds up.

While a move abroad would pad his bank account (he will earn $108,333 in MLS this year), crossing the pond is risky business. No matter the destination, he would face fierce competition for playing time from the get-go. Ideally, he would land in an environment where he would be able to increase his confidence. Confidence is everything for a striker, and it evaporates pretty quickly on the bench.

The next year will tell us more about how good the kid can become than the year that's just passed. Will he bolt in January? Can he stay injury-free? (He has sat out recent matches with a calf injury.) Most importantly, will he keep finding net? Says Motzkin: "None of this matters if he's not playing well."

Far from the finished product

Only time will tell if he can be the one American soccer is waiting for. Raw talent and good health aside, it will take a lot more than an Adidas commercial and a video game cover to do it.

And even if Altidore one day becomes the top American player, it still won't be enough for some. He could ask Landon Donovan about that. When Donovan's header knocked Mexico out of the 2002 World Cup, the then-20-year-old was dubbed "Baby Jesus" by the sacrilegious faithful. Now 25, Donovan's next international goal will make him the country's all-time leader. By any reasonable standard, he is by far the finest attacking player the U.S. has produced. Yet, he is vilified by a large portion of his own fan base, which accuses him of lacking ambition for choosing MLS over Europe and blames him for the three-and-out ending at Germany 2006.

As unfair as it is to suggest that only global superstardom will do, there is reason to hope that Altidore's shoulders might be broad enough to carry the burden of such lofty expectations, not least because he probably won't pay attention to them anyway.

For now, his aim is to "keep playing well for the Red Bulls and maybe in the future play for the national team and make that jump overseas like any young professional wants to."

And all the fans can do is watch, root for him and see where his story goes. In the end, that's what it's all about anyway.

Whether he's the one or not.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.