Altidore hailed as America's soccer prodigy

February 14, 2008

NEW YORK -- With all the praise and attention that have come Jozy Altidore's way in the past year, from TV commercials to video game covers to historic goals, Quavas Kirk knows it's important to bring his former teammate back to reality.

"He's still 'Oatmeal' to me," the Los Angeles Galaxy's third-year midfielder said laughing. "On the streets he's 'Juice'."

The nicknames go back to their time at the U.S. under-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla., and how they tried to rattle each other while playing video games.

Teasing each other about their names, Kirk created Oatmeal to mock Altidore, while Ofori Sarkodie tweaked Altidore's formal name, Josmer, to Juice-mer, and eventually just Juice.

It's a reminder that although Altidore is the United States' latest soccer prodigy, he is just a few months past his 18th birthday, a kid being promoted by some as the great American scoring hope.

"He's now considered one of the best American soccer players ever," New York Red Bulls teammate Juan Pablo Angel said. "He's still a kid. He has the ability to play in any league he wants. But he has to establish himself in MLS. Because now people are going to pay attention to him."

With nine goals in 22 games last year, Altidore was eighth among MLS scoring leaders in his first full season in the league, second on the Red Bulls to Angel. He also helped the United States to the quarterfinals of the Under-20 World Cup, scoring four goals to finish fourth among the tournament leaders.

Those accomplishments landed him in a TV commercial for Adidas and on the cover of this year's FIFA 08 video game next to Ronaldinho of FC Barcelona.

Altidore added to his growing reputation when he became the youngest player to score for the U.S. in the modern era when he had a goal in a 2-2 draw with Mexico on Feb. 6. It was his third appearance and first start for the senior U.S. national team.

He also traveled with the U.S. under-23 side to China in December, and next month will likely be critical to the United States' chances of qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.

"He knows his roles on the national teams and on the Red Bulls, and I think he has great potential," Olympic coach Peter Nowak said. "Everyone is different, everyone develops in their own way, but we can have a lot of joy with him on the national teams if he keeps working hard."

At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, as of last count, Altidore is a big, fast and strong forward, able to run past defenders, one-touch around them or shoulder them off the ball.

Twice last season he earned goal-of-the-week honors in MLS, one of them in a 3-0 Aug. 11 victory over Toronto. It was the finale of a two-goal day, taking an over the shoulder pass from Angel, flicking the ball with his left foot to elude one defender and the goalkeeper and finishing easily with his right into an open net.

"It's been hectic," Altidore said. "Seeing different places every other weekend. I just hope I keep healthy.

"[Teammates] demand of me like they would a 30-year-old veteran, but I still carry all the gear."

While many in the sport are confident Altidore will become America's first truly international soccer star, some believe the youngster has many things to learn, and suggest his biggest challenge could be coping with others' expectations.

"People are anxious to put him on a platform," said Bruce Arena, the former U.S. national team coach and Altidore's coach last season on the Red Bulls. "He needs to get better, in all phases: holding the ball, running off the ball. We all need to appreciate that he's still only 18 years old."

Other would-be U.S. soccer prodigies, most notably Freddy Adu, entered the American professional ranks to great acclaim, but are still looking to achieve the unrealistic expectations set for them.

Adu signed with D.C. United amid much fanfare as a 14-year-old in 2003, publicly feuded with Nowak, his coach, was traded to Real Salt Lake and never earned a regular starting job in MLS. He transferred to Portugal's Benfica last year and has appeared to have found a home.

Altidore was drafted by the Red Bulls as a 16-year-old in 2006, but finished his time at the under-17 residency camp to complete his high school education before joining New York late in the season. He scored in his second league appearance, and hasn't stopped.

"He's a different commodity, that's what makes him interesting," former U.S. national team forward Eric Wynalda said. "There is raw ability. Jozy has all the ingredients to be a terrific soccer player, anywhere."

Altidore's play at the under-20 World Cup in Canada last year reportedly drew the attention of nine-time European club champion Real Madrid.

Neither Madrid, the Red Bulls nor Altidore's agent will confirm any discussions, but last week Altidore said he knew of interest from English club Reading. Red Bulls managing director Marc de Grandpre has said the club has every intention of keeping Altidore in New Jersey.

"He's shown he can contribute in different ways -- from inside and outside the box," U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen said. "That's hard to come by. This next year will be important. Can he continue to make progress [in MLS]? Make a contribution with the Olympic team? That's his next big step. If the answer is yes, a move is imminent."

While everybody else sets lofty career goals for him, Altidore has remained humble while keeping his hopes simple -- like staying healthy.

"I haven't changed. I'm the same kid," Altidore said. "I hold myself more accountable, even though I'm younger than most, I'm expected to be a leader.

"Hopefully I'll play in a World Cup. The Olympics, I'd like to play in that. It's a dream to test my luck in the best leagues in the world. But I'm happy where I am. I'm with a team that cares, and is committed."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press