Meet U.S. Soccer's New Poster Boy

Jozy Altidore, 17, is already a phenom, but will he survive the hype?

Oct. 10, 2007 — -- Jozy Altidore is a man-child. Just 17 years old, the American-born soccer phenom stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs no less than 175 pounds. As a boy playing a man's game-- professional soccer with New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer-- he needs every ounce.

Altidore missed a game last May so he could take his girlfriend to her prom, and when he's not enjoying a mid-afternoon nap at his mom's house in New Jersey, the recent high school graduate just might be busy updating his blog on The New York Times Web site.

In a sports culture that is forever reaching for the "next big thing," continued success and development for Altidore would make him the first big thing to come out of our confounding soccer nation. His friend and teammate on the U.S. under-20 national team, the superhyped teen Freddy Adu, has, according to many, taken his millions from Nike and done little else.

As much as the two men -- boys, really -- swear allegiance to one another, Adu and Altidore are remarkably different players, playing different positions. Adu is a midfielder who can appear nifty in spurts, but is prohibitively inconsistent, critics say. Altidore's game remains unrefined, but he plays a straightforward style -- and a position where quality is easy to measure.

Altidore is a striker. His job is to score goals. The measurements are simple. The person is not.

"I think that soccer is the most beautiful game, period," Altidore tells ABC News, having just arisen from another nap. "It has an art to it that no other sport can grasp, not even close. I understand you have to be a person who believes the same, but it's a belief that's growing here in the States."

Altidore's personal growth, here in the States, may be nearing an end. The MLS season finishes in late November. He will turn 18 Nov. 6, and thus become eligible for a move to Europe. There is little doubt that interest exists overseas. Altidore is well-thought of enough that FIFA and EA Sports decided to put him, along with Ronaldinho and Mexican star Guillermo Ochoa, on the cover of the North American version of this year's "FIFA 2008" soccer video game.

"I would love to go to [play in] Europe," the new cover boy said. He pauses to consider the proclamation, then goes on, "But I can't just sit on the phone and say 'Hey, I want to go to Europe.' Like anyone else, I would love to go. But all I can do in the States is play and play well, and wait for the clubs to come calling."

Bruce Arena, Altidore's coach in New York and manager of the U.S. men's national team from 1998-2006, is even more cautious. Arena has coached in two World Cups, and knows how fickle the footballing world can be.

"This guy is playing in a position where we've never had a top level player," Arena said. "I've forewarned the media before ? and I've said we've made some major blunders in the past in terms of proclaiming players this or that. Jozy needs time. He needs to be patient."

You'd be hard-pressed finding anyone to contend that point. But the question that follows is more difficult. Where, exactly, is the best place for Altidore to take his time, be patient and develop the technical intricacies of his game?"

There are Americans succeeding in Europe, but most are goalies. Midfielder/forward Clint Dempsey has been coming up trumps for the Premier League's Fulham this year, but he is not a prototypical strike threat.

Altidore, on the other hand, looks the part. His goal-scoring record in MLS, given his age, is without peer. He's netted 8 goals in 20 games this year, and led the surprising American team in scoring at this year's under-20 World Cup in Canada.

Arena said the MLS is as good a place as any for the player to improve. The problem is that very few, if any, American players have made the jump and become stars.

When asked if a layover, in say, the English second division might make sense -- something to bridge the considerable competitive gap between the United States and top-flight leagues like the Premiership or Spain's La Liga -- Altidore demurs.

"I think I'd rather stay here than do that," Altidore said.

Spoken like a true 17-year-old. But Altidore might take a lesson from the French superstar Thierry Henry, the man upon whom he models his game, and it would seem, demeanor. Henry made his name at Arsenal, of the U.K.'s top-shelf Premiere League, and now plays for Catalan giants Barcelona. But he took a progressive route to that point, making 110 appearances with lesser known AS Monaco in France before joining forces with a French manager in England.

It's easy for an American, be it a young player or aging coach, to drown in the intricacies of player development. We just haven't figured out a system for doing it right. Altidore is a student of the game, but he's not obsessive. In a way, it is what distinguishes him from his teammates and other American athletes.

His parents, Joseph and Giselle, fled the dictator "Baby Doc" Duvalier's Haiti in the mid-1970s for the calm of New Jersey. The family relocated to Florida soon after Jozy was born.

The Altidore family has returned to Haiti a number of times in the past few decades. Three members of the Red Bulls, Jozy included, recently visited along with pop star Wyclef Jean in support of Jean's "Yele Haiti" foundation.

Altidore said he wasn't surprised by the poverty he saw during the trip. It was the spirit of the children he met there that struck him, and elicited some unusual observations.

"They were happier than most people you see here every day, most of the big business executives you see here. You see a little kid that doesn't have anything to eat and he's just laughing his way down the street. It's amazing how they conduct themselves as people, compared to some in the U.S."

If FIFA and American soccer have their way, people will continue to see and hear more from Altidore. The video game cover was, in all likelihood, just the newest business opportunity for the soon-to-be 18-year-old, who's already done a TV spot for Adidas.

As for his friends' reaction to the news that Altidore was going to grace the cover of a game they'd been playing for a decade: "A lot of them don't really know about it yet. But soon enough, they're gonna find out." Soon enough we all will, one way or another.