SAO PAULO – In some ways, Jozy Altidore enters the 2014 World Cup the same way he did four years ago in South Africa.
In 2010, the then 20-year-old was coming off a one-goal season in the English Premier League on loan with relegated Hull City. In 2014, Altidore logged his second EPL campaign, scoring just one league goal for relegation-threatened Sunderland.
Just like in South Africa, Altidore is expected to lead the line for the United States in Brazil, only this time he’s got 55 more European goals under his belt and 13 more international strikes to draw upon.
So while the surface-level circumstances may seem similar, Altidore knows better. He may still just be 24, a few seasons away from him prime, but four years have been more than enough to leave the past behind.
“I’m just totally different than what I was [in 2010],” Altidore told journalists on Wednesday. “I was just so young and so excited to be here. Now, I’m one of the older guys in terms of experience. I have some responsibility on myself to help the team. I’m excited to take that role on.”
First things first, Altidore will shoulder the scoring load against Ghana in both team’s Group G opener, a match that offers the tantalizing chance to avenge back-to-back World Cup losses at the hands of the Black Stars.
Altidore was one of four players on the current roster – Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley were the others – to play in the knockout round loss in 2010 that saw an Asamoah Gyan strike in added time keep the upstart Americans from the quarterfinals.
“I remember it being a tight game. I just remember them taking their chances,” Altidore said. “That was basically the difference in that game, I think. Otherwise, we were good. We were in the game, as I remember it. Obviously they were athletic, they were tough to play against. But I think we had our chances to win the game.”
“We had some errors in both games that basically cost us,” he added. “They were more clinical in the end in both of those games, but I don’t think there was any big separation or anything like that between the two teams.”
Those errors – most notably, Ricardo Clark's costly turnover on Kevin Prince-Boateng's opening goal just five minutes into the match and the failure to deal with a long clearance that resulted in Gyan’s game-winner – still haunt US fans, but it will be a much different American side this time around in Natal, one that is largely unscarred by that defeat.
Ghana, from Altidore’s perspective, remains much the same despite some turnover and an injection of youth. They’re quick, effective on the counter and physical, posing individual matchup problems all over the field.
But they’ll also have to deal with a US attack that features Bradley far more prominently, a recent tweak by Jurgen Klinsmann that may just open things up for Altidore and Dempsey in the box.
That change was especially apparent against Nigeria, meant to be a like-for-like opponent ahead of the Ghana rematch, as Altidore broke a 28-match scoreless streak for club and country with two much-needed goals.
“Michael being able to move forward and play forward a lot more than he has in the past is helping us because he has that ability,” Altidore said. “To have him closer up the field and spraying the ball left and right can only help us.”
And the US will take all the help they can get with so much riding on the opening match, one Klinsmann compared to a knockout game and Bradley said could push the odds in the Americans’ favor.
They’ve impressed and also frustrated at times during their three Send Off Series matches against Azerbaijan, Turkey and Nigeria, but still managed three fairly comfortable victories. Now it’s time for the real thing with three vital World Cup points on the line.
“Winning is a habit,” Altidore said. “The fact that we won three games in a row, hopefully we take that into Ghana feeling confident and try to get another win.”
“It’s all about peaking at the right time,” he added. “Hopefully, come the game, we’ll be flying out of the gates.”