Jozy Altidore on coping in the pros: “It’s been difficult because I’m not used to that . . . But I have to get used that. It’s part of the whole experience.” (Photo courtsey of MLS)
Since February is Black History Month, FrontRowSoccer.com will post one story a day about soccer players of color from the United States and the rest of the world. This multi-part series we will feature players from Jamaica, Cuba, Haiti, U.S. Virgin Islands, Ghana, Bermuda, Brazil, Trinidad & Tobago, Senegal and the United States. Today, we feature former Red Bulls forward Jozy Altidore, who plays for Toronto FC and the U.S. men’s national team. This story originally was posted on BigAppleSoccer.com Oct. 28, 2006.
By Michael Lewis
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — When he first played organized soccer at the age of five, young Jozy Altidore had a shot so hard that parents of the other players complained about him.
“The parents were upset at the way he kicked the ball,” his mother, Giselle Altidore, said. “He kicked it very hard. They wanted to get the kids away from his shots.”
So he wound up playing with older children at the Under-7 level.
“Ever since, he’s been playing up,” Giselle said.
As it turned out, those first steps helped to start define the Red Bulls rookie forward’s career.
These days the 16-year-old man-child is playing with the big boys in MLS, some teammates — 38-year-old forward Youri Djorkaeff quite literally old enough to be his father.
“I’m very proud of him,” his father, Joseph Altidore recently said. “He’s always been a good little player.”
Now, Jozy Altidore is not so little, accomplishing big things on a bigger stage.
For a teenager, the 5-10, 175-lb. Altidore has acquitted himself quite well, scoring three goals in seven regular-season games, including two vital game-winners in 1-0 victories down the stretch. But Altidore has learned the realities of playing professional soccer in recent games as opposing sides have singled him out with close marking. He hasn’t scored in three consecutive games, including last week’s 1-0 home playoff defeat to D.C. United.
“It’s been difficult because I’m not used to that, them responding that way,” Altidore said. “But I have to get used that. It’s part of the whole experience . . . and go on with it.
“I’ve got to try and be a little more dangerous. I’ve had my little streak of goals. I’ve got to keep it going now.”
Born on Nov. 6, 1989 at St. Barnabas Hospital in Livingston, N.J. — and not Newark, N.J. — as his mother pointed out — Josmer Altidore is the youngest of four children of Giselle and Joseph Altidore. He has three older siblings — brother Janah, 25, and sisters Lindsey, 24, Sadia, 19, who is a sophomore defender at Florida International.
His parents are both natives of Haiti but didn’t meet until they came to the United States.
Giselle left her native land in 1973, Joseph a year later.
She came from Port-au-Prince, Joseph from Cayes.
Giselle said it was “a chance at a new life. Haiti’s such a hard place to break through. My dad said to get out and go here and get a better life. The United States is a land of opportunity. You have to have discipline.”
At the time, Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier was dictator of the country.
“If you didn’t want to work for him, it was better off to get out,” Joseph said.
Joseph came by himself and wound up living in Orange, N.J., earning an associate’s degree in electronics from Essex Community College. Today, he is a courier for Federal Express. He met Giselle on a bus in Orange, coming home from work one day.
When Jozy was one in 1990, the Altidores moved down to Boca Raton, Fla. because Joseph had allergies. “Me and my wife thought Florida would be better for us,” Joseph said.
Joseph, a self-confessed soccer nut (“soccer’s been the man’s sport in Haiti”), kicked the ball with three-year-old Josmer.
“I knew he was going to be a good soccer player,” he said.
When his early days with the Erickson Eagles in Florida was brought up by a reporter recently, Altidore smiled when he reminisced about his early days.
“I made friends quickly on that team,” he said. “It was a mixture of boys and girls. I remember my dad saying, ‘I’m sorry, you’re going to have to leave the team.’ I remember, saying, I don’t want to leave. I like this team. he kept telling me . . . that I kicked too hard.”
Then Altidore smiled and laughed.
“I guess at that time, it was keeping their kids safe from my shot or something like that,” he said.
Jozy played basketball and soccer for several years until Joseph told his son he had to choose one to focus on. “You don’t have too much time to play two sports,” his father told Jozy.
“Five years later, no other kid could play like him.”
Altidore’s most memorable youth game? Playing up in the U-14 bracket in the league championship game.
“It was the way he played,” Giselle, who added that her son scored one goal and assisted on another in a 2-1 win. “He was very awesome that game.”
He eventually attended the U.S. Soccer U-17 residency school in Bradenton, Fla. He was so impressive with the U.S. U-17, Altidore was taken by the Red Bulls in the second round — 17th overall selection — in this year’s SuperDraft. He earned a base salary of $75,000 and a guaranteed salary of $98,333 this season, according to the MLS players union.
Just as impressive as his game has been Altidore’s maturity. He acts and speaks well beyond his 16 years. That doesn’t surprise his father.
“He’s always acted like that,” he said. “When my wife and I had a disagreement, he was always trying to be a moderator when he was little.
“He acts older than my 25-year-old.”
So, it’s not surprising that Giselle and Joseph are Jozy’s role models. “I am proud the way they worked and how they worked themselves to the middle class,” he said.
Even with all that maturity, Jozy is 16 and still a minor. He has been living out of a hotel with Giselle, registered nurse, close to the stadium and will live an apartment with his mother next season. Giselle drives him to and from practice and games at Giants Stadium.
“He can’t do everything himself,” Joseph said.
Joseph will remain in Florida for the time being, although thanks to his job with FedEx, he can fly in on weekends and watch his son play. He finally got an opportunity to see Jozy play against Chicago Sept. 30.
“It was very exciting,” he said. “I was proud of him at the time.”
If you’re a Red Bulls fan, you know the story of Jozy Altidore this season. Due to school and U-17 National Team commitments, Altidore didn’t join the Red Bulls until the summer.
He got his feet wet in the waning minutes of the Red Bulls’ Lamar Hunt/U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal elimination loss to D.C. United Aug. 23, coming on for Djorkaeff in the 74th minute. Still, it wasn’t counted as his official professional debut — until he was brought on Danny O’Rourke for the final nine minutes of the 1-0 loss at New England Sept. 9.
In a scoreless tie against the Columbus Crew Sept. 16, Altidore replaced an injured John Wolyniec in the 74th minute and fired home a dramatic, 30-yard blast for the lone goal in a much-needed 1-0 victory. At 16 years, 314 days, Altidore became the fourth youngest player to score in MLS.
“I’ve learned if you’re good enough, I guess you’re old enough,” Altidore said. “Age doesn’t really matter. You’ve just got to be a good soccer player.”
After connecting for a late goal off the bench in a 4-3 defeat at D.C. Sept. 23, coach Bruce Arena decided to give Altidore his first start in another must-win game against the Chicago Fire a week later. Altidore struck again, this time in the 60th minute in a 1-0 triumph.
“Obviously, we had a kid who took advantage of a couple of opportunities and showed some promise,” Arena said. “I felt, all things being equal, I wanted to go with a younger player and get an opportunity to develop him.
“That was one of the luxuries of coming to this team at that time. The expectations weren’t that great. Not only could we deal with the short term of making the playoffs, but also look at the long term and get a player of that promise on the field.”
And there’s certainly room for improvement.
“We know where he has to go,” Arena said. “He has some work ahead of him, but certainly it has been worth the experiment of giving him a chance to play.”
Today, Altidore finds himself starting for the Red Bulls alongside Djorkaeff.
The Red Bulls find themselves in a must-win against United at RFK Stadium at 6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN2). They need a one-goal victory to at least force a 30-minute mini-game and perhaps penalty kicks to stay alive.
Altidore sounds like a grizzled old pro when he talked about what the Red Bulls have to do against D.C.
“It’s all about the first 15 minutes,” he said. “You can’t go out crazy for the first 15 minutes. We’ve got to stay compact. We’ve got to go out there and move the ball around. Once we get the first one, I think the game will fall into place for us.”
So far life in the pros has fallen into place for Jozy Altidore.
“I wish they would all get one goal. In all honesty, you don’t concern yourself with that. You concern yourself with results. It’s all about trying to win the game Saturday. I could care less who scores the goals. If one of those two guys again scores, I would not be that depressed.”