Altidore shines but it's not Brazil yet
Jozy Altidore is back.
His first goals since Dec. 4 (Sunderland vs. Chelsea) and Oct. 11 (U.S. vs. Jamaica) were finishes of differing quality and style, yet each will infuse the struggling American striker with the kind of confidence that should galvanize fans heading into the World Cup.
A quick review: His first goal was a simple effort, tapping in Fabian Johnson's probing cross from just 6 yards out and an empty net at his mercy. Rudimentary stuff, but vital for a man enduring such an unenviable drought to that point. The second, though, was the finish of a seasoned, in-form forward.
Michael Bradley chipped a pass into space down the left side of the box. With Norwich defender Joseph Yobo all too happy to over-commit in pursuit, Altidore dropped the shoulder and cut inside onto his right foot before thumping it past Vincent Enyeama at the keeper's near post.
All game long, Altidore displayed the kind of movement and menace that Jurgen Klinsmann will always have wanted from his target man. Said the U.S. manager himself, "I always told him 'You're not getting it for free. You've got to go and work for it.' We knew that if he got the chances, he will put one in."
Truth be told, Altidore has been showing these qualities (minus the scoring) throughout the U.S. national team's send-off series, threatening briefly against Azerbaijan while showing a willingness to do the dirty work in the 2-1 win over Turkey last week.
Bradley benefited from the protection of Kyle Beckerman and Jermaine Jones in midfield, using the extra time and space on the ball to play many incisive passes that sparked numerous U.S. attacks. (Don't take the comparison too directly, but it reminded me somewhat of the way in which Juventus and Italy insulate Andrea Pirlo in midfield, using various energetic and aggressive midfielders to clear room for the erstwhile maestro.)
All in all, Altidore's brace was the difference for a U.S. team that looked largely comfortable and in control against Nigeria all afternoon at Jacksonville's EverBank Field, but will it be this easy at the World Cup?
It would be foolish to slander the Sunderland striker too much given that he achieved on Saturday what some hardened cynics thought he might never accomplish again. Yet it's important to maintain perspective.
Nigeria afforded the kind of space and one-on-one match-ups in their generous, attack-minded 4-3-3 formation that the likes of Ghana and Germany simply won't dare. Tournament play is for care, caution and execution, hardly the kind of approaches you expect to find in these pre-World Cup warm-ups, a playground for experimentation, variation and slightly reduced pace given the lingering fear of picking up a serious injury so close to departure.
Does today's performance mean that Altidore is a candidate for the Golden Boot this summer? Of course not. But scoring goals and hitting form at just the right time is exactly what Jurgen Klinsmann, U.S. fans and players alike would have wanted. Goals beget confidence and, in theory, confidence begets more goals.
In Jozy's words, speaking to ESPN's Jeremy Schaap after the game, his confidence has been a constant. "To be honest, I felt fine before, I feel fine now. The most important thing is, especially after being part of this team for such a long time, is how we perform. And going to a tournament like this, we want to make sure we're performing at a level that will give us a good chance."
Though it's been far from smooth or convincing since Klinsmann memorably (and infamously) cut Landon Donovan and named his 23-man squad in swift succession, three wins from three in pre-tournament friendlies is hard to ignore. (As Matt Besler noted, "We've accomplished all of our goals.") That run, coupled with some notable struggles for Group D opponents like Germany (injuries to Marco Reus and Lars Bender) and Portugal (listless form without a not-fully-fit Cristiano Ronaldo), is slowly turning supporters from despair to cautious optimism.
Like it or not, Altidore will be the starting striker throughout the U.S.'s time in Brazil. He's earned it. "He's our horse," Tim Howard said after the game. "We've made no bones about that. It's no secret. We have to ride him." Saturday night's composed double proved that such faith was well-founded, though in three tight, tense group games, it's anyone's guess as to whether it can be replicated.
Whatever happens in Brazil over the coming weeks, the U.S. is heading to the World Cup with many reasons to feel optimistic about what awaits. It could all easily end in heartbreak but the preparations have been as good as anyone could have expected.