TAMPA — Starting for the senior men's national team for the first time, the 18-year-old striker takes a great first touch and sizes up his defender. He feints right, toggles the ball between both feet and darts by a Mexican defender. The frozen rope off his foot sails just high over the goal.
But minutes later, he soars high to redirect a free kick with his head, scoring his first national team goal against his team's most bitter rival.
Must be Freddy Adu, right? Wrong.
The young man in the white U.S. jersey that February night was Jozy Altidore, and many who don't know him by now will know him very soon.
"Playing with the full team has definitely been a confidence booster," Altidore said. "Scoring goals and playing at a high level did a lot for me in that area, but there's still a long way to go."
Altidore might be right, but he's getting there much faster than most anticipated.
When Adu splashed onto the national scene by signing with Major League Soccer's D.C. United in 2004 at age 14, becoming the youngest American in more than 100 years in a major pro league, he was anointed as the future of U.S. soccer. Few who were not deeply dialed into soccer knew much about Altidore.
That began to change after Altidore was taken 17th in the 2006 MLS Super Draft by the MetroStars (now known as Red Bull New York). He quickly became a fan favorite with some clutch playoff goals before starring last year for the national team in the 2007 Under-20 World Cup.
"We as the coaches are trying to show our young guys the way that real soccer as a professional works," U-23 coach Peter Nowak said. "Jozy has very good experience at a youth level and he's still a very young man, but he recognizes both his ability to play at the highest level."
U.S. fans quickly took note of Altidore after his team-best four goals at the U-20 World Cup, where the Americans finished a disappointing fourth.
"In a way, (the loss) was very motivating," he said. "It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth losing during the Under-20 World Cup when we felt we could have done a little bit better."
Altidore and the U.S. team will have a shot to do just that beginning tonight when the Americans meet Cuba in the first of three group matches of the 2008 Olympic qualifying tournament at Raymond James Stadium.
"If we do get a chance to qualify for these Olympics," Altidore said, "it will be a different story."
With the buzz growing among U.S. fans, Altidore was called up to the national team in November as a second-half substitute in a friendly against South Africa. After another appearance as a sub against Sweden, Altidore notched that strike against the Mexicans. The goal — combined with a spot on the cover of EA Sports video game FIFA 08, a relief trip with Grammy winner Wyclef Jean to Haiti (where Altidore's parents and Jean were born) and an Adidas television commercial — added up to what Altidore called a "whirlwind year." And many think the 6-foot-2, 210-pound forward is the U.S. striker of the future.
"He absorbs information very fast and has both feet on the ground, too, which in a young age is an important quality to have," Nowak said. "As a coach, we can show a player the door, but still only they can go through it and take that next step, and Jozy is making good progress right now."