DAVID SMITH - Thursday, June 17, 2010
As the US prepare for Friday's crucial matchup with group C leaders Slovenia, forward Jozy Altidore is primed for a tough battle but hopeful the team will be in the proper mindset to take control of the situation.
In the wake of the team's remarkable draw on Saturday against group favorites England, their upcoming eastern European opponents managed to sneak a win in their opening game against Algeria, putting an immediate importance on Friday's encounter should the US hope to stay in position to reach the knock-out round.
Even though the second-time World Cup qualifiers are largely bereft of the internationally-renowned firepower which the USA successfully held off as they battled for their opening point, they have consistently displayed their own strength of shutting down opponents over the course of 90 minutes and the ability of sneaking crucial goals when needed.
"It probably wasn't the most entertaining thing in the world to watch," he admits of Slovenia's 1-0 win, adding "but you can tell that they work very hard and get behind the ball."
The tight defensive performance gave an expected reminder of the style that Altidore and his teammates will undoubtedly face on Friday in Johannesburg, one which he knows is tough for any team even if the cards are already on the table.
"Watching those games is the worst because you know how tough of a game it's going to be," he continues. "You know it's not going to be an easy game."
"You can tell that they work very hard to get numbers behind the ball and they got their goal. At the end of the day their game plan worked, so we have to make sure that we go into the game knowing what to expect."
The recent growing success of the US National team has put them, in the eyes of many, in the unfamiliar position of being favorites over their two remaining group stage opponents. Even though such a status is largely new to the squad in the World Cup, it is a distinction they are used to carrying in their own CONCACAF region, and one which is not overlooked by the 20 year-old striker.
"Yeah it is [like qualification]," he concedes of the widespread expectations of the team's success. "I think we're used to this position, but at the same time, we don't feel that way. We feel like we've got to go in there and get three points or even one point."
"A win would be great since you love to be in control of your own destiny but at the same time you can't be stupid. If we're down a goal or we get a goal, we've got to take control. If we're up a goal we're going to try to hold the lead."
In contrast to any preconceived notions of success heaped upon the team heading into the tournament, their draw with England came as a surprise to many throughout the world. For Altidore, however, the result was no shock to those most familiar with their abilities.
"I think we haven't surprised each other," he asserts of the team's internal reaction to Saturday's game. "In terms of surprising people, that's not what we're here for. We knew going into this what we are capable of, in terms of playing as a group and being dangerous when we go forward."
The final months leading up to South Africa were a challenge for the former New York Red Bull as he navigated a difficult first season in the English Premier League with Hull City, however the toughest struggle of his career hit unexpectedly in January when Haiti, the nation from which his parents immigrated to the US and where much of his family still resides, was ravaged by a devastating earthquake.
"For something like that to happen, it totally switched my focus. My focus for football just wasn't there for the next three or four months, which obviously wasn't good leading up to this competition."
"Even while I was playing football, at times football wasn't even what was on my mind," he continues. "It was just the worst possible mindset I could have been in while playing in the biggest league in the world and playing for a team that was trying to avoid relegation."
Playing through the difficult time, both on and off the field, was an exhausting experience for the young forward, however he is thankful for the support of those close to him in helping to prepare mentally for the summer's challenge.
"I'm happy that I'm finally getting over it now because I don't think being at this kind of competition I could afford to have that state. Fortunately for me, I have great support in my family and we've done a lot of great things to help out."
Even amidst the excitement of the ongoing tournament, Altidore maintains close contact to his family as they put forth continued effort to aid in Haiti's restoration.
"I honestly try to check in two or three times a day with my family. We're trying to do a lot of things to help out in any way we can. Those people are still in a lot of tough positions, so we're trying to do what we can to help."
As the country slowly continues its long road to recovery, Altidore feels an admiration for their enduring national character, and carries a strong sense of pride in his dual heritage each time he takes the field.
"In terms of the people in Haiti, they are incredibly resilient. With all the things that have gone wrong there, for them to still be the same people that they are, it's amazing."
"It's tough for me to think about every day, which is why I'm happy to have this opportunity to try to represent not only myself but them as well. For me, it's an honor to be Haitian and to represent them."