JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was just a tap from four yards out, but that's all he needed. Jozy Altidore can now head to the World Cup without the oppressive heat of a 27-game scoreless streak, ending it in emphatic fashion with two goals in the United States' 2-1 victory against Nigeria in Saturday's final warm-up game before leaving for Brazil.
"It was a wonderful message to see Jozy put the thing in the net. It gives him a big smile at the right time now," coach Jurgen Klinsmann said.
In the 31st minute, after Altidore slid a pass from Fabian Johnson into the left side of the net, there was no elaborate celebration or even a sigh of relief. He simply hugged Johnson and patted him on the head. On the sideline, Klinsmann raised his arms in the air and pumped his fists.
In the 68th minute, Michael Bradley placed a perfect pass in the box, Altidore cut inside and blasted the ball pass the keeper. "World class," is how Klinsmann described it.
It had been 185 days since Altidore last scored a goal, and 239 days since he scored in a U.S. jersey. As the days inched closer to the World Cup, Altidore insisted his confidence wasn't shaken. Even after the two goals, he shrugged off any suggestion of relief.
"It makes no difference," Altidore said. "I've had pressure since I was 16. It comes with the territory."
Altidore, and his teammates, repeatedly downplayed the drought, as well as the boost of the two goals. "Anyone who doesn't see what he brings to this team doesn't understand soccer," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "You can't help but laugh when he goes through a few games and he doesn't get a goal or two and people want to throw the rest out the window. This is a guy you want on your team every single time. The confidence in him has always been there regardless of whether he scores or doesn't score."
Even so, Klinsmann, one of Germany's great goal scorers, knows the impact streaks have on strikers.
"It's always a tough period when you don't score as a striker when everyone around you lets you know that. So you get more and more anxious about the situation and you work harder and harder, which he did the last three and half weeks we've been in camp. You wish the moment comes, you put it in there and you start being yourself again."
Klinsmann also knows that streaks depend on confidence as much as opportunity. This time when Altidore got those chances, he didn't disappoint. Altidore's performance bodes well for the Americans, who leave on Sunday for Brazil. "We can't wait to start that tournament," Klinsmann said.
"We kinda said to each other in the locker room, 'The fun starts now,'" Bradley said.
Saturday's game was a sneak preview of what to expect against Ghana, the USA's opening opponent on June 16. Both African teams have dangerous attacking players and speed but are prone to defensive lapses.
Presumably the starting line-up will remain the same. Klinsmann veered from previous line-ups by starting Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman in the middle. In the past, it's been either Jones or Beckerman alongside Bradley. Alejandro Bedoya remained wide as Graham Zusi came off the bench.
Klinsmann said that Beckerman's specialty is to protect and cover his teammates on defense and his presence gave Jones the freedom to go forward.
To advance beyond the opening round, the Americans must beat Ghana, given games against Portugal and Germany follow. Klinsmann has even gone as far as calling it a knockout game.
When it comes to scoring slumps and spurts, Altidore has mastered the extremes.
During the 2012-13 season with Dutch club AZ Alkmaar he had an astounding 31 goals in 41 matches, a scoring record for a U.S. player in Europe. Altidore carried that momentum into the summer, ending a national team drought by scoring his first U.S. goal in 17 months. Another tear followed as he scored eight goals for the USA in 2013, earning U.S. Soccer male athlete of the year honors. That boom was followed by the recent miserable season at English Premier League club Sunderland, where he scored just once in league play.
The Americans can only hope that Altidore's two goals lead to another run. Especially given past history. The last American forward to score in a World Cup was Brian McBride in the 2002 World Cup.
Even though this was a friendly, in front of an exuberant crowd of 52,033 at EverBank Field, far from a pressure cooker of an opening World Cup game, it was meaningful. Though Altidore said his confidence was never shaken, at least now it won't be questioned.