photo by Steven Limentani/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It is not often that Jurgen Klinsmann utters the words “World Class”, but that is exactly how he described the second of Jozy Altidore’s two goals against Nigeria.
Altidore broke out of his highly-discussed scoring slump by bagging a brace in an overall impressive outing in the U.S. Men’s National Team’s 2-1 win vs. Nigeria on Saturday, and Klinsmann was more than delighted to see his top striker get rewarded for all the hard work put in during the run-up to the World Cup.
The 24-year-old Altidore – who last netted for either club or country in Sunderland’s loss to Chelsea on Dec. 4 - scored his first in the Americans’ final send-off series match by tapping in a ball from close range after solid work from several of his teammates. The second also involved magnificent work from one of his compatriots, but required a nifty touch and powerful shot from Altidore.
“I think it will give him a lot of confidence,” said Klinsmann of Altidore’s two-goal performance. “It’s always a tough period when you don’t score for a striker. You know and everybody around you lets you know that. You get more and more anxious about the situation. You work harder and harder, which he did the last three-and-a-half weeks since we got into camp. He really worked his back off. It was amazing.
“Then you just wish that the moment comes, you put it in there, then you go start to be your own self again, which it does. But you have to go through that working process, so that’s what I’ve always told him. You’re not getting for free. You have to go and work for it. He got sharper and sharper, fitter and fitter. We knew that if he gets the chances he will put one in.”
Altidore has maintained in recent weeks and months that he has not been fazed by the stretch of 27 games for club and country in which he was unable to score because he had been able to deliver in other areas. But Altidore had grown tired of questions about his confidence and the much-analyzed drought, and he put them to rest while also silencing his detractors – at least for the time being – in an emphatic way on Saturday at EverBank Field.
“The reality is that anybody who ever questions Jozy or anybody who ever doesn’t see what he brings to our team, doesn’t understand soccer,” said Michael Bradley, who delivered the mouth-watering pass that set up Altidore’s winner in the second half. “I’ll tell you guys that right now: This guy does so much. At such a young age, he’s given our team so much on so many big days. You can’t help but laugh when now he goes through a few games and he doesn’t get a goal or two and people start to look and want to throw all the rest out the window.
“Trust me, as a player, as somebody who has been on the field with him on a lot of days, in a lot of big games, this is a guy who you want on your team. Every single time.”
The forward is also someone whose influence in the locker room has grown significantly in recent years. Part of that is down to other veterans being dropped from the team, and another reason is Altidore’s more mature and professional outlook.
“To be honest, it makes no difference,” said Altidore when asked if it’s a relief that he scored. “I don’t know if it’s weird to (others), but it’s not weird to me. I think as I played for this team for such a long time, it’s my responsibility to help the team in other ways: tracking back, just being somebody now that younger guys can look up to. I take that very serious.”
A noteworthy statistic that emerged from Saturday’s match is that Fabian Johnson’s last four assists have been on goals that Altidore has scored. When asked why the two have such a good understanding after the victory that saw them connect again for the game’s opener, Altidore offered a rare smile to the media and said, ‘That’s my roommate.’
Altidore and Johnson might have a good understanding on and off the field, but it will be of great importance for the U.S. that other teammates pick out Altidore in similarly dangerous positions at the World Cup.
That will help assure that the U.S. has a shot at advancing out of a challenging Group G that includes Ghana, Germany and Portugal, and that the cumbersome questions about his scoring funk remain in the backdrop.
“He needs to have people that make certain runs, get to the endline, put it back in and get him in the right place,” said Klinsmann. “How he obviously scored the second goal is world class. There’s absolutely no doubt about it. … Hopefully we can keep him as a handful going down to Brazil.”