HOUSTON -- As the national anthem filled a sold-out Reliant Stadium, and most of his teammates wore stern faces in preparation for the latest battle in the United States-Mexico rivalry, Jozy Altidore looked calm and unfazed. It would have been easy for an 18-year-old to be overwhelmed by the scene, but Altidore relished the moment and made history in the progress.
Altidore's headed goal against Mexico gave the U.S. the temporary lead on Wednesday night in a game that would end 2-2, and made Altidore the youngest American player to score against Mexico in the modern era. It provided credence to the belief that he could be the go-to target striker the U.S. team hasn't had since Brian McBride retired.
As young as he is, Altidore has already shown a penchant for delivering in high-profile matches. His first was a two-goal effort against Brazil in the Under-20 World Cup last July, followed a month later by his two-goal performance for the Red Bulls against David Beckham's Los Angeles Galaxy in a packed Giants Stadium.
Wednesday night's match dwarfed those other two matches in intensity and quality but that didn't stop Altidore from making an impact. Just five minutes after Mexico's Jonny Magallon equalized to stir up the pro-Mexico crowd, Altidore responded by beating Mexican captain Rafael Marquez and powering a header past Guillermo Ochoa. Altidore ran toward a section of American fans with his arms raised, signaling his arrival as a national team force.
"It's something you've got to soak in," Altidore said. "It's just a good experience to get games like this early in your career."
Altidore admitted that he was surprised to get the call to start against Mexico. Having come off the bench in friendlies against South Africa and Sweden, Altidore overcame the shock of starting in the national team's biggest rivalry.
"I was just like, 'Now I've got to get focused. Here's my big chance,'" Altidore said. "If you can't get up for a game like this then there's something wrong with you."
Altidore's opportunity was a product of the work he has put in with the national team in recent months, and the impression he has made on U.S. coach Bob Bradley and veteran players who see a mature young player well-equipped for an increased role with the national team.
"It's his third time in with the senior national team for a game and there was a feeling that he was ready to be on the field in the beginning," Bradley said. "The most important thing we always look for is the way a player establishes himself in the group, earns the respect of the other players and shows that when he comes into a national team camp he knows what it's all about.
"He trains the right way, he acts the right way, he does all the little things on and off the field to let everybody know that he understands what the national team is about," Bradley said of Altidore. "There's been good signs of that from Jozy. He's mature, he handles himself well, he listens, you get the sense that he learns from the players around him. If something doesn't work, he doesn't take things the wrong way.
"He's oblivious to all of it, which is nice," Donovan said of Altidore. "He's progressing well and the good thing about him is he wants to learn and he wants to take things in. It's not always the case with young guys but he's like that, so its good."
While Altidore is still learning as an international player, he showed in his first career start that he can handle the big stage and he can deliver a goal in the most intense of situations.
"It was a tough game and he showed that he deserves to be out on the field," Bradley said of Altidore. "But there are areas now where hopefully he can improve from being in this kind of game."
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.