His career began on the soccer fields at the entrance of the Florida Atlantic University campus. It was there that 8-year-old Jozy Altidore began playing tournaments for his first youth team and frustrating defenders with imposing play around the net.
Sixteen years later, a much bigger, stronger Altidore was back on campus, at the football stadium, wearing a captain’s armband, scoring the lone goal for the U.S. national team in a 1-1 friendly against Honduras.
The winding road between those two Boca Raton fields is less than a quarter-mile long, but Altidore’s career path has been far longer and more circuitous. It has taken him to New York, Spain, England, Turkey, the Netherlands, and back to England, where he has struggled to find playing time and the back of the net for Sunderland.
Florida’s warm weather and palm trees apparently bring out the best in Altidore. He has been prolific in his home state of late. He scored both goals for Team USA in a 2-1 World Cup sendoff victory over Nigeria in Jacksonville on June 7. Tuesday night, in the 10th minute, Altidore struck again and delighted his 70 or so relatives and friends among the crowd of 14,805.
The play began when Mix Diskerud stole the ball at midfield, sent it to Clint Dempsey, who knocked it to Michael Bradley, who sent a long ball over the top to Altidore. He dribbled around Honduran defender Victor Bernardez and sent a low shot inside the near post. The star-spangled American Outlaws fan group in the end zone went berserk.
“It was like the old days,’’ Altidore said. “It was kind of surreal to be here playing where it all started … a lot of emotions here in Boca. It was really nice for me. It was great to have everybody here with me, even cousins from Haiti who flew in to see me play. It was a really special feeling for them to be here.’’
One regret was that his youth coach, Josef Schulz, wasn’t around to enjoy the night. He died of cancer in 2013. “Josef would have really liked seeing the national team here in Boca,’’ Altidore said.
It was Altidore’s 24th goal in 74 appearances in a U.S. jersey, tying Joe-Max Moore at No.5 on the all-time USA scoring list. Altidore has scored only one goal for Sunderland this season, and he was injured the opening game of the World Cup, so he hasn’t gotten to celebrate many goals over the past several months.
“That’s the best medicine you can get as a striker is scoring goals,’’ said U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “I hoped he would add another to finish the game off, but he didn’t really have any chances. Having him back scoring is huge for his confidence, and good for us, too. Hopefully, he takes that energy back to the Premier league and continues scoring as well.’’
Alejandro Bedoya, the U.S. midfielder who grew up in Weston, was the first to hug Altidore after the goal. The two South Floridians roomed together on this trip. They were among the 10 U.S. World Cup players from Brazil who started on Tuesday. The others were: Nick Rimando, Timmy Chandler, Jermaine Jones, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, Diskerud, Bradley and Dempsey. The only newcomer was defender Greg Garza.
Jones moved from defensive midfielder to center back. Klinsmann said Jones’ experience, leadership skills, accurate passing and vision suit that position, and it may be a way to lengthen the 32-year-old’s career.
Many of the fans who wound up in the stadium Tuesday night missed Altidore’s goal because of massive traffic bottlenecks on I-95 and Glades Road. It took an hour and a half to travel from the exit ramp to campus, a stretch of one mile. A steady stream of cars was still pouring onto campus at halftime.
It looked like Altidore’s goal would be enough for the U.S. team, but Honduras got the equalizer in the 86th minute. Diskerud was booked for a tackle about 25 yards out, Honduran midfielder Mario Martinez took the free kick, and placed it perfectly at the center of the goal mouth, where captain Maynor Figueroa of England’s Hull City jumped and headed it between Jermaine Jones and goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
The disappointing ending was the second in five days for the Americans. The U.S. team lost a lead late against Ecuador on Friday night in East Hartford, Conn., and settled for a 1-1 tie.
“We started really well, got a nice goal from Jozy, and then maybe after 30, 35 minutes, we dropped a little,’’ Klinsmann said. “It was difficult to keep our rhythm and sharpness. Honduras looked energetic, and at the end of the day, they deserved the equalizer.’’
The Honduras roster included some familiar names for U.S. fans. Andy Najar, who plays for Anderlecht in Belgium, got his start in Major League Soccer. Other Honduran MLS players included San Jose Earthquakes defender Bernardez, Houston Dynamo midfielders Boniek Garcia and Luis Garrido, Chivas USA midfielder Marvin Chavez and Sporting Kansas City midfielder Jorge Claros.