On Wednesday the U.S. men’s soccer team beat Bosnia-Herzegovina 4–3 in Sarajevo. It was the first comeback victory in Europe for the Americans, their first 12-game win streak (currently the world's longest), and possibly the first time Team USA sent so many foreign fans fleeing for the exits early in their own stadium. But all those firsts shrink next to this one: An American striker finally looked like a "world-class" player.
Jozy Altidore, the oft-maligned prow of the American attack, he of the seemingly leaden first touch and ineffective checking run, who for years looked lost on the pitch, registered a hat trick of wondrous and varietal quality against one of the world's better teams. Everyone is gushing about his second goal, a superb free kick that carved a mad parabola over the opponents’ wall and into the net.
But it was Altidore's first strike that signaled something different was afoot. With the United States down a goal in the 59th minute, winger Fabian Johnson dinked a shallow pass into the box for Altidore to run onto. Well-marked by a defender, Altidore settled the ball with his right boot and, with his left, instantly whipped the ball across the goal and into the net.
There was a lot to like: the economy of effort, the speed of execution, the positional awareness. In the past, Altidore's first touch has often betrayed him. American fans have grown accustomed to seeing him push the ball too far away from his body or at the wrong angle to get off his shot. This time he created a perfect cushion. The finish was automatic. He didn't even lift his head.
"That is a confident striker," ESPN commentator Taylor Twellman, himself a former striker, remarked during the replay.
The rest of Altidore's performance was equally confident. He had an assist off a precision long ball from Michael Bradley. Toward the end of the game, he completed his hat trick by sprinting onto another Bradley pass. This wasn't just an impressive display by an American striker at the highest level. It was an overwhelming one.
To put Altidore's heroics in context, consider that 2013 is the centennial year for the U.S. men's national team. For pretty much that entire century, Americans have been pining for a pure striker who can take over a game the way Altidore did Wednesday. (Like Aldo "Buff" Donelli did when he torpedoed Mexico with four goals in 1934!) We've really had just two promising candidates in recent memory: Eric Wynalda and Brian McBride. At their peak they were productive forwards who fell shy of any sublime skill. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are the most accomplished scorers our country has produced. Donovan, though, is an attacking midfielder, and Dempsey usually drifts beneath the striker in a space known ominously as "the hole."
While the United States has produced many good outfield players, that rarest of birds—the premium-grade striker—has always eluded us, as it has many nations. It has long been hoped that Altidore was the first coming of such a creature. He was discovered in much the same way that supermodels get unearthed next to an airport baggage carousel. An Austrian named Josef Schulz happened to be walking through a park in Boca Raton, Fla., one day when he spotted Altidore playing pickup. Schulz, who ran a local youth academy, approached Altidore's father. "Don't laugh at me," he said. "I think your son has all of the ingredients to become a national team player." Altidore was 8 years old at the time.
Schulz became Altidore's youth coach and said this of his protégé not long after he turned pro at the age of 16: "Out of the players in the last 100 years coming out of U.S. soccer, he's probably going to be the first one who really makes it as a forward at the top."
No pressure at all.