As it turned out, ending the drought was simple.
After a tough stretch that spanned just over seven scoreless months for club and country, all U.S. striker Jozy Altidore needed was a simple, unchallenged tap over the goal line. Just over 300 miles from his hometown of Boca Raton, Altidore found his way back home on the field, and on the score sheet.
“We know that he has so much talent and so much potential, and you just want him to come through, like he did last summer in our World Cup qualifying campaign,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann after the match. “He’s happy here, and he’s happy in Florida especially.”
The 31st-minute goal turned the tide in a game that the U.S. struggled to break open at first. But the team put together a convincing second half and Altidore scored a fantastic second strike to take care of Nigeria for a 2-1 win in front of 52,033 fans at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.
If you’re thinking that Altidore’s goal brings a giant sigh of relief to the United States before the team departs for Sao Paulo, think again.
“To be honest, it makes no difference,” Altidore said after the match. “I don’t know if it’s weird to you, but it’s not weird to me.”
That same feeling carries over to his teammates.
“The reality is that anybody who ever questions Jozy or anybody who doesn’t see what he brings to our team doesn’t understand soccer. This guy does so much,” said Michael Bradley. “Our faith and our confidence in Jozy has never wavered. He’s such an important guy for our team.”
Altidore himself has spoken often about how his production in front of goal doesn’t affect his confidence, and that worries about his World Cup form after a tough season with Sunderland were overblown. However, his first goal clearly injected new life into a U.S. team that initially struggled against Nigeria through the game’s opening stage.
Nigeria’s skillful players, especially Peter Odemwingie and Victor Moses, found their way around multiple U.S. players with nifty moves and close control. These weren’t empty skills; Moses and Odemwingie were usually able to generate chances with shots or well-placed crosses, putting the U.S. center backs under pressure early on in front of a supportive crowd.
“I think we came into the game with some heavy legs,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “We really got after it this week. We didn’t take any breaks. It was a different temperature down here. We felt, in the Turkey game, that they were able to get into some dangerous spots on us. Our focus this week was to get everybody behind the ball. We felt that if we could win the ball, we could expose them with some numbers.”
Just as Fabian Johnson’s goal opened things up against Turkey the previous week in Harrison, New Jersey, the U.S. strung together a crisp combination of passes to take control against Nigeria. Jermaine Jones began the move, taking a well-placed touch into space and sending the ball wide right for Alejandro Bedoya. Bedoya’s slight hesitation upon receiving the ball allowed Johnson to dart into the penalty box, and with one touch the fullback split his defender and goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama with a ball across goal that Altidore ran into with telepathic assertiveness.
With no defender in sight, Altidore’s finish was simple. But his second goal wasn’t simple at all.
“How he scored the second goal is world class, there’s absolutely no doubt about it,” Jurgen Klinsmann said.
This time it was Bradley that turned provider, playing a long, lofted ball from the center circle into the path of Altidore, who found himself in a one-on-one situation with Yobo on the penalty box. Altidore went around the experienced defender gracefully, burying the ball past Enyeama with a thunderous strike worthy of the storm that had hit the city the night before the match. So close to home, Altidore looked as if he was playing in his backyard.
Altidore exited for Omar Gonzalez in the 80th minute, receiving a standing ovation on his way to the bench. He exited the stadium wearing a pair of dog tags the team exchanged with American service members in a ceremony in the previous day’s open training. Printed on them: “Stay fit! Stay Strong! Stay Resilient!”
“This is the best gift I’ve ever gotten,” Altidore said. “It’s something I’ll never forget.”