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American striker wants to make a splash across the pond

Jozy Altidore, 19, raised in Florida by Haitian immigrants, is a starter on an English Premier League team.

September 28, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

KINGSTON-UPON-HULL, ENGLAND — Apparently that tired, worried, cranky old beast called America still can cook up a story line of dreamy nonfiction, for it's just bloody hard to choose the best part of finding Jozy Altidore in this nook of eastern England commonly called "Hull."

Maybe the best part would be that scene from Sept. 19, when the Hull City starting 11 strode out and lined up in their tiger orange to play Birmingham in the world's biggest sports league, and a cheer went up in a soccer-soaked household across the Atlantic in Boca Raton. Among the Hull City players from nine nations stood a 19-year-old rock formation of an American striker in his first Premier League start. His three older siblings and two workaholic parents, who'd emigrated from Haiti, watched from the Florida house where the child used to kick balls even indoors.

"The chandelier is still lopsided," Jozy's sister Lindsey said by telephone. "It kind of tilts."

No, maybe the best part would be something Altidore said on a recent gloomy Friday at Hull City's practice facility. "You can't complain about a life like this," he effused with beyond-19 wisdom, even after a year of trying to wring playing time in Spain, going from the hubbub of his signing by first-division Villarreal -- at $10 million, the highest fee ever for a Major League Soccer player -- to second-division Xerez, then to Hull.

Out-of-the-way Hull (population 257,000) was bombed horrendously during World War II and seriously deflated with the fishing industry's collapse during the North Sea "Cod Wars" with Iceland in the 1970s, and it continues to get up from that. It's friendly and unpretentious and possessed of a pretty Old Town, and it was unmistakably energized by Hull City's ascent from England's fourth division in 2003 clear to the top in 2008, even if one tour guide cheerfully says, "It's not really on the way to anything."

Yet the son of Haitian immigrants who met on a bus in Orange, N.J., lives temporarily in a modest hotel where the staffers all know him and chirp when he phones, "Hey, Jozy, what'll it be this time?" His BMW arrived from Spain, so he drives on the left with a steering wheel on the left ("I'm always hitting the curb."). He's absorbing everything while craving American morsels such as the upcoming NFL game in London two hours south, maybe a Jay-Z show in London and definitely the urge to stay up late for Lakers-Cavaliers games, his fondness for Kobe Bryant owing to Bryant's not being "a soccer hater."

Having dealt with the loneliness of the far-flung -- "I know how to handle it now," he said -- Altidore beams an enthusiasm that wanes only when he hops up to escape a pushy bee, explaining that such creatures terrify him.

Still, maybe the best part is the wide-eyed young man in the widely watched league.

He marvels at the pace: "I just think the league has an intensity about it and has a way about it that there's no other way to play in the league. You have to play at a high intensity or you're going to be punished." He marvels at the environment: "I played my first game, and just the energy, it was electrifying. . . . I think the players kind of feed off it and find a kind of second or third wind."

He marvels at the players: "The smallest guy on the field will head-butt you. . . . It's just gritty and just different. . . . They're not naive players." And he marvels at the fans: "There'll be fans walking by you in the city when you're with a friend and you're not even thinking about it and, 'Hey, you better win on Saturday!' It just shows you, it's a different type of responsibility" for a player.

Having navigated the work-permit wrangle plus wailing babies on the plane to finally arrive on Aug. 21, and then enter the game in the 60th minute on Aug. 22, he quickly set up Kamel Ghilas for the goal in the 1-0 win against Bolton. Manager Phil Brown called Altidore "a big, bubbly character" the fans would fancy. Altidore scored in a Carling Cup match just after, and he can't wait to see the colossal stadiums of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal.

Of course, it's going to get very trying, so maybe the best part will be seeing what a young luminary on the U.S. national team can forge through the inevitable duress, even if his mighty body should help with the mighty physicality.

His first start in a 1-0 loss received mixed-to-dour notices. A Sky TV pundit thought he looked "lost." The Guardian noted that any creativity from Hull's 4-4-2 formation "invariably foundered" when reaching the strikers. Some fans thought Altidore got insufficient support, most cheered him upon his 63rd-minute exit and seemingly all say they don't expect too much because he needs games.

Deepening the test, Hull City's early look augurs a battle against a relegation it barely averted last May, and Brown sees ravaged confidence. Altidore will seek to "prove I belong" as responsibility knocks at the age of almost-20.

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