CHICAGO – Although the experience of playing without injured teammate Juan Pablo Angel has been bruising and sometimes frustrating, Jozy Altidore may look back on the early part of the 2008 season as one of the most important periods of his career.
The 18-year-old New York Red Bulls striker has been handed the primary responsibility for leading his team's attack in recent weeks, with Angel's arthritic back providing the latest challenge in Altidore's swift rise to prominence.
Angel is expected to return for Thursday night's clash with Toronto FC at BMO Field, meaning one of the most destructive attacking double acts in Major League Soccer can resume. Even so, Altidore's efforts since his Colombian colleague's sidelining have only increased his stock in what may be his final year in MLS before being snapped up by a big European team.
Altidore produced an outstanding individual goal against the New England Revolution, charging through one of the league's toughest defenses before finishing with a spectacular strike. Another goal followed at home against the San Jose Earthquakes and their rugged, no-nonsense defense.
A scout for an English Premier League team – after having watched Altidore more than 10 times over the past 18 months – has been impressed by his progress.
"It has been much easier for defenders to try to push him around without Angel around," said the scout, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "But Altidore did not back down.
"He didn't let his head drop too much when he got pushed around and you could see his mind working all the time. Sometimes, he would push back and show his toughness, or sometimes he would use his head and let it go – and beat them with his skill.
"For me, this little run of games recently might be some of the best all-round play we have seen from Altidore to date."
Given his tender years, Altidore's maturity is so impressive it is almost frightening. His soccer brain is developing all the time and the experiences he has had with the Red Bulls, the U.S. national team and the under-23s squad have helped him hone his skills.
If a European team does come for him later this year, he looks ready for the step up in quality.
"A lot has happened to me in the last year or two, but I am just enjoying the ride," said Altidore in an interview with Yahoo! Sports. "I don't get caught up in it too much. I just appreciate every new experience and enjoy it all.
"The best thing is having the chance to play soccer for a living, but there have been many other exciting moments that have come about because of the game."
Altidore was featured on the cover of the "FIFA 08" video game in North America alongside Brazilian superstar Ronaldinho and got to hang out with stunning supermodel Petra Nemcova at a recent charity event. However, he knows that he still has a long way to go in the soccer world and is determined to make the most of his potential over the next few years.
"There are so many things that I can get better at and I am looking to work on every part of my game," he said. "I believe that you should never be satisfied with your standard and should always be looking to improve.
"That is the mentality that I am taking forward and I hope it will help me become the kind of player I want to be."
There seems to be little that fazes Altidore. He scored twice in front of 66,000 at Giants Stadium against David Beckham and the Los Angeles Galaxy and also hit the net in a nerveless performance against Mexico in Houston.
But with the Olympic Games in Beijing in August and more attention than ever from MLS opponents and fans, his psyche will be put to the test more than ever the next few months. Just don't expect Altidore to be affected by the added expectation and pressure.
"Will there be challenges ahead?" he said. "I hope so.
"That is how you know that your career is going the right way – when you are challenged and meet that challenge."
- New York Red Bulls