On-fire Altidore has U.S. on top

Posted by Jeff Carlisle

SANDY, Utah -- For nearly two years, Jozy Altidore failed to find the net from the run of play for the U.S. men's national team. Now, in the last four games, he's scored four times, putting the Americans on the cusp of qualifying for another World Cup.

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It's been an utterly impressive run for Altidore. He had never scored in four consecutive matches for either club or country. He also became only the sixth player in U.S. national team history to achieve that feat, putting him alongside players like Eric Wynalda, Brian McBride, Landon Donovan (twice), Eddie Johnson and the immortal William Looby.

The impulse, then, is to think that something in Altidore's game has changed, that U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann fed him some nugget of insight, or that a light bulb went off in the U.S. striker's head that has allowed him to produce such a stellar run of form. Whether that is the case, Altidore wasn't saying. What he would admit to is that the U.S. attack is playing at a level that has allowed him to thrive over the last several weeks.

"The movement has been good, but overall, I think we're being patient on the ball from the back," he said after the match. "The long balls have been cut to a minimum. We're always trying to look for a solution. Everybody is making themselves available. I think [the attack] is finally coming along."

The goal Altidore scored Tuesday was a case in point. Clint Dempsey's through ball was dummied by Graham Zusi right into the path of Fabian Johnson, who then put his centering feed on a plate for Altidore to slot home.

"Look at the goal ... it's a beautiful team goal," he said. "That's what we have to keep doing and get better at, and I thought we did that over the past three or four weeks."

Such comments might strike some as a terminal case of false modesty, but a compelling argument can be made that nothing has really changed in terms of Altidore's game. After all, this is a player who scored 31 goals for his club side AZ Alkmaar this past season. As U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard put it, "I don't know if anything has clicked in the last three weeks that hasn't been going for [Altidore] in the last 12 months."

There is also plenty of evidence to back up Altidore's assertion that he's merely the beneficiary of some improved team play. Dempsey has been stationed in closer proximity to Altidore, making it less likely that Altidore would be stranded up top and left to fend for himself against two and sometimes three defenders. The fact that the team has been together for the last three weeks has helped establish better chemistry, enabling the service into the box to be of much higher quality, whether it was from Zusi on the right or Fabian Johnson on the left. The stellar play of Michael Bradley in the center of midfield has made the U.S. more adept at controlling a game's tempo, which has the effect of wearing down opponents. Maintaining a steady level of confidence has helped as well.

"To be honest with you, I was never really worried about [not scoring] at all," Altidore said. "Last cycle, I thought I was there when I had to be ... for the team. I think this time was no different."

But Klinsmann indicated that when Altidore first arrived for training camp in late May, he sensed that the forward was poised for big things.

"From day one, Jozy was spot on," said Klinsmann at his postgame news conference. "The first session in Cleveland he looked sharp, he looked good, he looked hungry. Even though the game [against Belgium] was disappointing from a result point of view, we had the feeling that he was high-energy, that he was looking forward to it, he's positive. He's coming off a tremendous season with Alkmaar on a personal level, and that's what we hoped, that over the stretch of three-and-a-half, four weeks, that he keeps on showing those signs, and that's what he did."

It would also appear that Altidore responded to the tough love that Klinsmann showed him in October, when the U.S. manager left him off the roster for two World Cup qualifiers. Back then, Klinsmann was not only critical of Altidore's lack of scoring, but his overall play. Now fast-forward to Tuesday night, and it's almost as if Klinsmann is talking about a different player.

"The energy [Altidore] has put in the last four or five games has been tremendous," he said. "It's not only that he scored those goals. The work that he does for the team is awesome. How he starts it, the high pressure that we would like to play more and more, how he kind of shifts the defenders to the side. He chases them down, he wins balls back. That energy from Jozy is very important to the team."

Perhaps that willingness to do the dirty work marks the biggest change in Altidore's game. In an interview with ESPNFC.com in October, Altidore remarked that "You have to do what the boss says, whether you agree with it or not." Now he appears to be doing just that, and the goals are flowing as a consequence. It's a lesson he doesn't plan on forgetting.

"I think I'm far from a finished product," he said. "I think there's still a long way to go in terms of the learning curve. All I can do is try to be a sponge and have that desire to get better."

That drive and subsequent success have also set him up for a big-money move later this summer. With the World Cup less than a year away, any switch comes at a critical time for Altidore. Should he risk moving to a club where playing time could be scarce?

"To be honest, I haven't really thought about that at all these last two or three weeks," he said. "Now it's vacation and that's all I'm looking forward to: Game 7, Thursday night, go Miami Heat."

After these past four games, Altidore has certainly earned it.

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