Jozy Altidore celebrates after scoring the only goal in the U.S. soccer… (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images )
SANDY, Utah — For the 12 European-based players on the U.S. national team, Tuesday's World Cup qualifier with Honduras was a little like the last day of school. They were going on summer break no matter what happened in the game, but a passing grade on the final exam was going to make that break a whole lot more fun.
So striker Jozy Altidore, who spends his winters playing in the Dutch Eredivisie with Alkmaar, and goalkeeper Tim Howard of England's Everton, made that happen with Altidore scoring in the 73rd minute and Howard posting a shutout in a 1-0 victory over Honduras.
"It's easy to go on vacation and enjoy some cold beers and swimming pools and all that stuff leaving everything on a high," Howard said. "This sets us great for the autumn qualifiers. We're in the driver's seat now. So it's been an upbeat summer. But it will be an even better fall."
A fall in which the U.S. (4-1-1) is all but certain to advance to the World Cup for the seventh time in as many tries. Because after Tuesday's win — the third in as many qualifiers this month — the U.S. goes into the summer break atop the table in its qualifying tournament with 13 points. The top three teams in the six-team competition will advance to next year's World Cup in Brazil, and in three of the last four qualifying cycles, 16 points has been enough to move on.
The U.S., which vaulted over three teams in the last 12 days, will resume qualifying in September with a two-point lead over second-place Costa Rica and a five-point advantage over third-place Mexico. And the Americans are there largely because of Altidore and Howard.
A 23-year-old who already has 60 caps with the U.S. national team, Altidore has been a scoring machine with Alkmaar, finding the back of the net 51 times in the last two seasons. But until this month he was in a scoring drought for the national team, going nearly a year and a half without a goal.
He ended that in spectacular fashion, scoring in each of his last four games — including the game-winner Tuesday.
“I think it’s just a matter of us clicking as a whole," Altidore said of his newfound chemistry with teammates Graham Zusi, Clint Dempsey and Fabian Johnson, who set up his goal Tuesday. "These past four or five games have been our best in the past few years. I think it’s no surprise that we’re being successful now.”
Altidore has been something of a special project for U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann, one of the world's top scorers during his playing days. And now he's beginning to see that work pay off.
"We always told him from a coaching perspective that it takes a lot of hard work, it takes a lot of adjustment, it takes the right moment to be there, it takes a hunger," Klinsmann said. "The energy he put in now in the last four or five games has been tremendous. It’s not only that he scored those goals, but the work that he does for the team is awesome.
"That energy from Jozy is very important to that team. They really get a better understanding with every match together. And obviously the biggest thing for our strikers is always scoring. It gives you confidence. It gives you energy. We are very pleased with his path.”
He's undoubtedly pleased with Howard's path as well since the U.S. has allowed just one goal in its last five qualifiers. In last year's CONCACAF semifinals, Howard conceded a goal to Guatemala on a free kick with seven minutes left in regulation in the final summer qualifier, turning a win into a frustrating tie — one he spent his whole vacation reliving.
"We had a bad taste in our mouth," Howard said.
That won't be a problem this summer.
"It's a good feeling to be on top of the table," said Klinsmann, whose team is unbeaten in its last 25 home qualifiers dating to September 2001. "Especially when you're going into a stretch of almost three months until your next World Cup qualifier. That's what you want to have."