By the time U.S. striker Jozy Altidore suits up this Saturday for Hull City in an English Premier League game at Sunderland, he will have traveled more than 14,000 miles in 11 days to play three high-pressure matches for his club and his country. It's a lot to ask of a 19-year-old, even one who may have the physical and mental traits to become the U.S.'s first globally feared goal scorer. "When you're going through [eight] time zones, you have to make sure your body's rested," Altidore says. "There's a lot of wear and tear with all the games."
Altidore's recent schedule would punish the busiest of jet-setters. Last Saturday he scored the game-winner in a 2--1 come-from-behind win against El Salvador in Sandy, Utah, pushing the U.S. into second place in the region's World Cup qualifying tournament with three games to play. Heading into Wednesday's match at Trinidad and Tobago, the 6'1", 185-pound Altidore was leading the U.S. with five goals in seven qualifiers. "We're always quick to label someone the next coming," says U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard, "but the sky's the limit for him."
An explosive finisher with poise in the box, Altidore has the strength to shrug off defenders, as he did with Spain's Joan Capdevila to score in the U.S.'s 2--0 upset at the Confederations Cup in June. But after transferring from the Red Bulls to Spain's Villarreal for an MLS-record $10 million in June 2008, he was Altidormant last season, playing just six league games. "When things didn't go well, one of the positive signs was seeing him come into [U.S.] camps with something to prove," says U.S. coach Bob Bradley. "Even when he hadn't been playing regularly, he showed he was ready to help our national team. But you can't go on too long not playing with your club."
In August, Altidore began a seasonlong loan with plucky low-level Premiership club Hull City. Just seconds after his debut, he assisted on the goal that gave Hull its first win of the season. "You have to make sure everybody knows you want to get better, and you want to understand everything about the culture," Altidore says. He's a quick study: When Altidore pronounced the team's name without dropping the H, the locals set him straight. "They were like, 'No, it's 'Ull,'" he says. "So you've got to say 'Ull."
It's hard to know which is more encouraging for the U.S.: that Altidore feels he "could have done better" this year despite leading the team in goals, that his frontline partnership with 23-year-old Charlie Davies could last years, or that he will likely get extensive playing time in England's top flight as South Africa beckons. "It's a big year, a World Cup year," Altidore says. "This is when you have players come from off the radar and become the next big thing."
Or, in the history of American strikers, the first big thing.
Now on SI.com
U.S. qualifying coverage from Grant Wahl and Jonah Freedman at SI.com/bonus
He might be the greatest player of all time, but as a coach Diego Maradona makes Isiah Thomas look like Phil Jackson. No one on the planet gets less out of superb talent than El Diego, whose Argentina squad lost 3--1 at home to Brazil last Saturday and was in danger of dropping to sixth in South American qualifying depending on Wednesday's result at Paraguay. The Albicelestes still can reach South Africa—CONMEBOL's top four teams go automatically, while the No. 5 team has a two-game playoff against CONCACAF's No. 4—but it's hard to imagine them winning the World Cup with Maradona at the helm. On Saturday he vowed to continue in the job he's held since November, saying, "This will not break me." Too bad: He's already broken one of the world's great teams.
JOHN TODD/ISIPHOTOS.COM (ALTIDORE)
'ULL OF A SHOW Altidore scored the go-ahead goal against El Salvador two weeks after making a splash in his EPL debut.