HOUSTON – Only once on Wednesday night did Jozy Altidore act like a young man of exactly 18 years and three months old.
The moment came in the immediate aftermath of the United States' 2-2 friendly draw with Mexico when the New York Red Bulls striker dashed across the Reliant Stadium field toward Mexican defender and captain Rafael Marquez. For a brief moment, Altidore – who acts, thinks and plays with a maturity that belies his years – morphed into a star-struck teenager.
"Hey man," he said to Marquez. "I watch you every week. Barcelona is my favorite team in Europe."
"Thanks," said Marquez, slightly bemused at the display of mild hero worship from a striker whose first international goal had threatened to condemn Mexico to another defeat on North American soil before it fought back in the second half. "Keep on watching."
It is just as well that Altidore occasionally slips back into teen mode. There are few other reminders that he is at an age where, at this time of year, most youngsters are looking ahead to spring break.
And just like any 18-year-old, the decisions he makes over the next few years have the capacity to exert a major bearing on his life.
Altidore's options would appear to fall into three categories. One scenario would be (subject to an appropriate offer) to transfer to a major European club power, such as Real Madrid, the Spanish giant that has already expressed a genuine interest in acquiring him. The training at Real would improve his game, but he would not figure in the first team in the near future and could spend several frustrating years warming the bench or stuck in the reserves.
The second choice would be to spend a few more seasons in Major League Soccer working alongside Juan Pablo Angel and under new head coach Juan Carlos Osorio. In New York, Altidore, hopefully for him, would establish himself as one of the league's leading stars. That route is the safe option, but it carries the pitfall of him being held back by sticking with his comfort zone.
A happy medium could be a switch over the next year or so to a competitive, but not elite, club in a top league such as England or Spain. It has been reported on the Soccer By Ives website that English Premier League club Reading was poised to sign Altidore during the recent January transfer window. Yahoo! Sports understands that the collapse of a deal involving the transfer of Reading striker Leroy Lita to another Premiership team killed the possibility of Altidore crossing the pond – this time.
His potential is apparent for all to see. However, it is his composed approach, both on and off the field, that makes him such an attractive proposition for European teams.
Wednesday was a prime example. In his third appearance and first start for the U.S. national team, Altidore stood calmly during the national anthem as if he was preparing for a kickabout with his friends rather than a game against his country's biggest soccer rival in front of more than 70,000 fans.
Once the game began, he didn't get frustrated at his lack of early touches and remained patient. After Oguchi Onyewu's 30th-minute opening goal had been cancelled out by Jonny Magallon in the 35th, Altidore's chance arrived five minutes before halftime. Drew Moor's perfect cross from the right found him eight yards out, and he made no mistake with his angled header.
While his goal, which made him the youngest United States player to score against Mexico in the modern era, made headlines, it was Altidore's overall play that really impressed.
His physique is still developing, but so too is his soccer brain. His work away from the ball, and his angled runs in from the wings are major (yet often underrated) components of an all-round game that makes him so much more than a traditional target striker.
"It is a great experience for anyone to score their first goal for their country and I went over to share it with the fans," he said. "It was very special.
"With it being a big game like this it did affect me, but in a good way. If you can't get up for a game like this then there is something truly wrong."
"You have got to soak it all in," he added. "It is a good experience to play games like this early in your career so when you get a bit older you can be helping the younger guys if they are still around."
So at 18, Altidore is already thinking about the day when he can pass on his wisdom and experience to the next generation. He is clearly unshakeable in his belief that he will be around at this level for a long time to come.
It is hard to doubt him. And with every measured word, every intelligent move and every mature performance, it gets even harder.