Altidore primed to lead U.S. attack
The Jozy Altidore that Jurgen Klinsmann, 52,000 fans and the overmatched defense of Nigeria saw on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida? That's the real Jozy Altidore.
That is the Altidore who will lead the U.S. attack in Brazil. That is the Altidore who will lead the U.S. in scoring at the World Cup, whether they play three games or more.
You read that right. Despite his long stretch without a goal and the hefty baggage he carried with him from Sunderland to World Cup camp, it's Altidore -- not Clint Dempsey -- who will find the net more than any American in Brazil.
Altidore always had the talent. Now, once again, he has the belief.
It was only a year ago that Altidore broke a long international scoring drought in a friendly against Germany. He proceeded to go on a scoring tear, rippling the net in his next five U.S. matches and setting a record in the process. That, too, was the real Altidore, an exceptional athlete with the ability to beat defenders with both his notable strength and a quick, heavy shot. Altidore has never been known for his finesse or carefully placing a shot where a goalkeeper had no hope of saving it. His best goals are thunderous strikes that move too quickly for a goalkeeper to respond.
Altidore's second goal against Nigeria is the perfect illustration of what makes him dangerous. Michael Bradley's ball was the key, but with so much work to do, most of the credit goes to Altidore. His speed put him in a position to victimize Joseph Yobo; his strength allowed him to hold Yobo off; his smart cut inside provided the space for the shoe; and finally, his powerful right foot slammed the ball past goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
Two Junes in a row, Altidore's scoring form has come to life. In 2013, it was a fallow international run that dogged him. This year, it was his club form that hung like a dark cloud over his immediate prospects at the World Cup. It's no coincidence that in both cases Altidore regained his confidence because Klinsmann provided the striker with his. By continually selecting Altidore no matter the formation or his recent goal-scoring record, the USMNT coach sent a message to the 24-year-old that he would always be a crucial part of whatever success the Americans would have.
It will get tougher in Brazil, of that there is no doubt. Whatever resistance the Nigerians put up in Jacksonville, Ghana, Portugal and Germany are certain to multiply it. That could mean more struggles for Altidore, or with his confidence intact and surrounded by a team that trusts him to create chances, he might build on Saturday's brace and prove again why he scored so many goals in the Dutch Eredivisie and earned his way back to the Premier League.
Against Ghana, Altidore will likely battle defenders who don't regularly see the type of speed and power he has. That's not to say they're incapable of shutting the American down, but opening the World Cup with a crucial match against the Ghanaians gives Altidore and the U.S. a chance to exploit a pair of players who lack top-level European experience.
Top-level European experience is exactly what Portugal and Germany will throw at the striker in the following two matches. Portugal's central tandem features Pepe and Bruno Alves, two seasoned professionals who are not only experienced and read the game well but who also come with a nasty streak that will test Altidore's ability to maintain his focus. Frustration is not Altidore's friend, and it doesn't take more than viewing one or two of his matches for Sunderland last season to see how losing his cool can affect his game. Pepe in particular has a long track record of rattling strikers much more accomplished than the American.
Germany present the stiffest test -- with the caveat that the Americans' fate might already be determined by the time Die Mannschaft line up to play the Yanks. Likely starters Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng ply their trade for the Bundesliga's top two sides, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, respectively, meaning that they face some of the world's best strikers both domestically and in European competition nearly every week. Altidore's abilities won't frighten them, and it may take something special from him to score. Most likely, it will require the full effort of the American attack to put Altidore in a position to take advantage of his newly rediscovered scoring touch.
No player, save perhaps Cristiano Ronaldo, will dominate this World Cup on his own. It takes a team to create chances that put capable strikers in position to do what they do best. Altidore is no exception, so while the focus is on his set of goals against Nigeria and what that might mean for his time in Brazil, care must be given to point out that his return to the score sheet was enabled by the excellent play of more than one teammate. Should the U.S. get the type of performances out of players like Fabian Johnson and Bradley that they got in Jacksonville, Altidore will get chances to reward them with goals.