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.
Schulz, of course, wasn't alone in his aspirations. Altidore’s MLS debut in 2006 was all it took to stoke widespread irrational exuberance. Here he is scoring a beautiful goal in his first appearance as a pro.
He's such an unknown commodity that the announcers can't pronounce his last name. (“Altidor-AY—he’s gonna have a go!”) But who cares? He could save America.
In 2008 Altidore signed with Villarreal—the first American (excluding dual citizen Giuseppe Rossi, who represents Italy) to transfer to a top club in Spain's first division. By that point, he'd become a vessel for the collective dreams of our national soccer id. He'd been saddled with impossible expectations. This happens in other countries, too. But Altidore was, at the time, America’s only realistic hope for an elite striker.
In part this was due to his physical stature. He simply looked the part. At 18—heck, at 16—he was the same 6-foot-1-inch bruiser he is today. But he hadn't grown into his frame, and Villarreal was too much too soon. Altidore couldn't get on the field and was quickly loaned out to, in succession, Xerez (Spain), Hull City (England) and Bursaspor (Turkey).* No stint was more disastrous than Hull City, where Altidore played 28 games and scored one goal. From 2008 to 2011, he scored only three times as a pro. He was just as bad for the USMNT, where he experienced a drought that lasted almost two years and ended this June. Little more than a year ago, Altidore was widely considered a disappointment, if not an outright bust.
As expectations waned, however, Altidore thrived. A move in 2011 to AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch league, which has served as an incubator for other Americans, was a step down in competition and one that Altidore needed. In Holland he could make mistakes and develop at a natural rate. He blossomed. In his first season, he scored 22 goals. In his second he had 31. This season he'll return to the Premiership in England, with Sunderland, again with high expectations.
“I have brought him in and I don’t hope, I am sure he will be a success," Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio told the press recently. “He is the size I need. He jumps hard and he is an animal. He attacks every space and his first touch is good. He is fantastic finisher and that is a good mixture."
Altidore has always had size and power. At 23, he has improved his touch, mainly because he's learned to make smarter runs and position himself better before receiving the ball. But the key ingredient is poise, which flows from confidence. It may sound wishy-washy and unscientific, but this is what every striker talks about and it is almost certainly true. Poise separates a striker near the goal, where he has fractions of a second to make a decision, to shake a defender, to find space and shoot. The striker must be impervious to doubt. He must be sure. He must be cold.
This is a cognitive function, not an athletic one, and it’s why there are so few elite strikers in the world. Lots of players have the physical ability. It’s the ability not to panic that is key. In his last five games for the USMNT, Altidore has scored seven goals and showed a poise he didn't possess a few years ago. He has regained his confidence. He has not panicked.
And he has benefitted from playing on teams that better undergird his abilities. In the past Altidore struggled as a lone striker. Without good service from wingers and the midfield, he was often stranded, unable to create opportunities for himself. At AZ Alkmaar, a crew of talented support players fed him intelligent passes. He has been getting similar service on the U.S. team from newcomers like Graham Zusi and mainstays like Bradley. When Donovan, the country's all-time assists leader, rejoins the first team, Altidore will see even more opportunities.
Many of those chances result from improved buildup play through the American midfield. The U.S. team used to dump the ball, often on a counterattack, to Altidore and hope for the best. Now, the midfielders aim for possession, as they did against Bosnia-Herzegovina, which allows them to probe for weaknesses in a defense, which then allows Altidore to run onto more through balls, always one of his strengths.
The thought of pairing a resurgent Altidore with another forward in a 4-4-2 formation should tantalize coach Jurgen Klinsmann. The brief 27-minute stretch where Altidore shared the field with debutant Aron Johannsson, an Icelandic-American striker Klinsmann persuaded to play for the United States (and who is now AZ Alkmaar's main goal-scoring threat) must have sent a shudder through CONCACAF. Johannsson was dynamic in possession, with a quicksilver touch. Combine his skills with Altidore's power up front, and the U.S. national team could have, for the first time since Charlie Davies went down, the potential for a fearsome two-pronged attack.
Maybe Altidore is in the form of his life, but he's started to look like the player everyone hoped he was, unfairly, four years ago. The proof will come next summer—American forwards have, after all, failed to score in the last two World Cups. Now, at least, it’s hard to bet against him. The most telling moment in the Bosnia-Herzegovina game came after his first strike, the one that leveled the score at 2–2. Altidore ran to the Bosnian net, grabbed the ball, and brought it back to the center stripe. That is a player who wants to win and knows he can. That is a player American fans have been waiting to see for well nigh a century.
Correction, Aug. 18, 2013: This piece originally misspelled the name of the Turkish club Bursaspor. (Return to the corrected sentence.)