By Michael Lewis
NATAL, Brazil — In 1998, Josef Schulz and his wife went for a relaxing walk in a Boca Raton, Fla., park, not realizing what they were going to find when they noticed an 8-year-old boy playing soccer in a pick-up game.
Schulz couldn't believe what he saw — a mere child playing at such a high level.
"I said to my wife, 'This is not possible, that this is in America,'" Schulz said.
"I saw this little child had something special, although it was nothing really organized. I asked a mother there (whose) child it was, and she introduced me to the father. I said to (the) father of Josmer, 'Don't laugh at me. I think your son has all of the ingredients to become a national-team player.'"
To which the father replied:
"What are you talking about? My kid is 8-years-old."
But Schulz was persistent.
"I know what I'm talking about," he told the father. "Bring him to our practices. I think I can do a good job with him. See if he likes it or you like it. I think (I) see something in Jozy which is special."
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Joe Altidore brought his son to practice at the Boca Raton Soccer Club, and Jozy stayed and developed into the player he is today. After playing for Boca Raton S.C. and the Schulz Soccer Academy for 7 1/2 years, Altidore joined U.S. Soccer's Under-17 residency in Bradenton, Fla. He stood out and was picked by the New York MetroStars in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft.
Schulz passed away in 2013, but his legacy lives on as Altidore has become a key member of the U.S. national team, which faces Ghana in its World Cup-opening match at 5 p.m. Monday.
"When he came to practice and continued after three, four weeks, I said to my wife: 'I never believed that (somebody) was born to do something,'" Schulz said several years ago. "The first time I saw Jozy, I said to my wife, 'Now I understand the term, somebody's born to do something. This kid is born to become a professional soccer player. He was not (just) the athletic ability. It was not quickness of the run. It was the whole package.'"
That whole package has become a vital part of the U.S. national side.
Altidore was drafted by the MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls) as a 16-year-old, and scored his first professional goal later that year. Two years later he was transfered to Villarreal (Spain) for an American record $10 million.
He wound up playing on loan with Xerez (Spain), Hull City (England) and Bursaspor (Turkey) before he found himself and his form with AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, when he filled the net 39 times in 67 league matches. He decided to play in the English Premier League with Sunderland this past season with disastrous results, scoring only one league goal in 30 appearances.
That was in December, some seven months ago.
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Altidore, now 24, just about prime time for goal-scorers, finally broke his marathon slump of 1,893 scoreless minutes for both club and country by connecting twice in the U.S.'s 2-1 World Cup tune-up win over Nigeria on June 7.
Whether he can continue it that, it remains to be seen.
He claimed that it was never a problem of confidence on his part.
“Everybody is so worried about my confidence. My confidence is fine,” Altidore said after a 2-1 win over Turkey on June 1. “It’s not going to change whether I score a hat-trick or don’t score at all. I’m fine.”
The U.S. has to hope that Altidore is fine against Ghana, or their World Cup journey could be a rough-and-tumble one.
If he can find the back of the net even once in the next three games — the Americans have Portugal in Manaus on June 22 and Germany in Recife on June 26 — he will do Schulz proud.