A Confidence Game
Jozy Altidore Scores Twice, Insists It's No Big Deal
The U.S. national team put on two strong defensive displays Saturday, and only one of them took place on the playing field. ASN's Mike McCall reports from Jacksonville, Fla.
June 07, 2014
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—The U.S. may as well have played two matches on Saturday night: one against Nigeria, and one against reporters trying to get someone, anyone, to admit that scoring twice was a boost for Jozy Altidore’s confidence.
The Yanks won both.
Thanks to Altidore’s goals, which were his first for any team in more than six months, the U.S. will depart for Brazil on a three-game winning streak.
And given the quality of those strikes and the reaction they provoked from a crowd of more than 50,000 at EverBank Field, it seemed a given that the squad would have some glowing things to say about the moment and its meaning, both for their forward and for a team facing a hellish stretch of matches in Brazil.
But time and time again, players deflected and defended as capably as they had on the field minutes earlier.
Altidore, head resting in his right hand as if bored by the inevitable first question of his press conference, said, “To be honest, it makes no difference” for his confidence.
Minutes later, Clint Dempsey rounded the question by saying, “It’s just important that we keep winning.”
Enter defender Matt Besler: “We’re not worried about Jozy.”
And to cap it off, Michael Bradley delivered the most direct blow: “The reality is that anyone who ever questions Jozy, or anybody who ever doesn’t see what he brings to our team, doesn’t understand soccer,” he said. “You can’t help but laugh when he goes through a few games, doesn’t get a goal, and people start to look and want to throw all the rest out the window. Trust me, as a player and somebody who has been on the field with him on a lot of days and a lot of big games, this is a guy you want on your team, every single time.”
To be fair, Altidore’s drought was more than "a few games"—he went without a goal for half a calendar year—but his performance left little to nitpick as the U.S. heads into a June 16 showdown with Ghana.
There were a few sloppy moments in the mostly defensive early going, but those were forgiven in the 31st minute, when an excellent passing sequence between Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, and Fabian Johnson set Altidore up for a tap-in.
A few minutes later, Altidore displayed the kind of skill that may be most needed against powers like Germany and Portugal, getting on the end of a clearance and placing a perfect headed pass into the path of Dempsey to spark a promising possession.
An excellent long ball to Dempsey led to a shot in the 45th, but all that paled in comparison to what would come 23 minutes later.
When Bradley sent a pass over the top, Altidore controlled it, juked Nigerian captain Joseph Yobo, and unleashed a right-footed missile past goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama.
He passed well, finished well and flat-out played well. Just don’t expect him to join in the storylines of restored confidence or relieved pressure.
“I’ve had pressure since I was 16,” he said.
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann came the closest to giving up a goal to the reporters, using his own playing experience to provide some context around Altidore ending a goal drought that had lasted since December 4, 2013.
“I think it will give him a lot of confidence,” Klinsmann said. “It’s always a tough period when you don’t score for a striker, and everybody around you lets you know that. You get more and more anxious about the situation and work harder, which he did over the last three-and-a-half weeks in camp. He really worked his back off. That was amazing, and then you just wish that the moment comes, you put it in there and go be your old self again.”
On a basic level, the U.S. will be glad to have as many goals as Altidore can produce, especially given that only two on the roster—Dempsey and Bradley—have scored at a World Cup.
Altidore will have to defend, pass, possess, and just about everything else in Brazil, but the No. 1 task on his job description is to score.
“It’s important that our attacking players get goals,” Bradley said. “To win, you have to score, and he’s a guy we rely on to get goals. … For an attacking player to get goals is always a good thing, but don’t mistake it for now him needing confidence because it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
And if there were any lapses in confidence, well, they should be cleared up.
“We see him being back on the right track,” Klinsmann said. “He’s happy here, and obviously he’s happy in Florida especially. He takes that spirit with him to Brazil, which is pretty much like Florida.”
Not that those lapses ever existed, of course.
Mike McCall is an ASN contributor. Follow him on Twitter.