EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - In 1998, Wyclef Jean was getting immersed in his solo career after leaving The Fugees, David Beckham was playing in his first World Cup and Ronaldinho was tearing up the Brazilian league with the sort of skills that soon would make him a world superstar.
Jozy Altidore was eight years old.
Fast forward to the present and Altidore, still only 17, is comfortable standing shoulder to shoulder with those giants of the soccer and entertainment worlds.
The New York Red Bulls striker and Wyclef are pals and traveled to Haiti - the birthplace of Altidore’s parents - for a recent charity event.
On Saturday, Altidore ruined Beckham’s big night in front of more than 66,000 fans at Giants Stadium by scoring two goals to help the Red Bulls to a thrilling 5-4 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Ronaldinho might have to wait a while to come up against the young American on the field of play, but they are paired together on the front cover of the U.S. version of EA Sports’ “FIFA 08” video game.
When the hype machine starts, inevitably, to clunk into action, it always is a pivotal moment in the career of any talented prospect. There is no doubt that people are starting to take serious notice of Altidore.
Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena knows he does not need to hype up his striker. Seven goals in 15 games do not begin to tell the full story of the 6-foot-1, 175-pound Altidore, who possesses strength, speed, finishing ability and, most importantly, a finely tuned soccer brain.
“He’s a dangerous player,” Arena said. “What I like about him is that he is a young kid that has a lot of confidence. The physical ability, and now the technical side, is starting to surface for him.
“It’s a kid that is going to be 18 in November, and he is starting to show that he is a player with a lot of potential.”
His solid performances for the Red Bulls - and for the U.S. in the recent under-20 World Cup - already have led to speculation Altidore will follow fellow American teen prodigy Freddy Adu on the road to riches and a higher standard of play in Europe.
Yet while Adu, who joined Portuguese giants Benfica last month, rarely hid his desire to switch to an established European league, Altidore is happy to see what the immediate future holds with the Red Bulls. Experienced teammates such as Juan Pablo Angel, Claudio Reyna and Clint Mathis surely will keep him grounded.
“So far it has been great for me and it has been an invaluable experience playing with the guys at this club who have had long careers and know what it is all about,” Altidore said. “They have taught me things about the game I didn’t know before.
“I believe MLS still has a lot to offer me as a young player, and I look forward to playing more and more.”
Unlike Adu, who drew immediate fame as America’s next big thing in soccer at age 14, Altidore stayed under the radar as a prospect until the last couple of years. Selected 17th overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft, he impressed immediately in his rookie campaign scoring three goals in seven games despite spending most of the season in Florida working towards his high school diploma.
Red Bulls midfielder Dave van den Bergh believes Altidore could become “one of the best in the world.” To reach his full potential, though, Altidore eventually will have to hone his skills for a club in Europe. He can rely on a good reference from Beckham, who singled out Altidore for praise after Saturday’s loss to New York.
“When good players get chances, they put them away,” Beckham said. “And he is a great player.”