Not a whole lot has changed for U.S. Men's National Team player Jozy Altidore in the past 12 months. He's routinely finding the back of the net for Eredivisie side AZ Alkmaar. He's preparing for some pivotal upcoming US Men's National Team matches. He's also still a relatively young player, one that has plenty to prove to critics and also to U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Perhaps the biggest story, or non-story depending on the last person you spoke with about the matter, regarding Altidore last year was the perceived rocky relationship he shared with Klinsmann. Klinsmann dropped the AZ forward from the U.S. team last October, but Altidore returned to the squad for a November friendly at Russia. Altidore was quietly one of the better players on the pitch that evening, helping the US earn what was an impressive 2-2 draw.
Klinsmann recently had some direct words for all American footballers. In a piece that was published on the Wall Street Journal website earlier this week, Klinsmann was quoted as stating that he expects players to "reach for the highest level" and then "confirm it, every year." For what it's worth, no American striker is "confirming it" more than Altidore at the beginning of 2013.
Altidore buried 22 goals across all competitions for AZ last season. Following a hat-trick this past weekend in the team's 4-1 win over Vitesse, the American is currently on 18 total goals. Considering that he's showing no signs of slowing down and that AZ have no fewer than 16 games remaining on their schedule between now and mid-May, it's a safe bet that Altidore will easily outdo his 2011-12 numbers.
Personal success at the club level is not the end game for Altidore. "The biggest worry for me, every day in training, is to try and get better," Altidore said to me during a brief conversation I had with the striker on Thursday. "I'm trying to reach a new level, and that's it. I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunities that are given to me."
"I'm not the self-gloating type. I'm just not into it, you know? I'm just worried about the next game and trying to prove that every time I get onto the field, I deserve to be there. I'm still trying to improve as a player, trying to get better and better. That's my focus."
While he admitted to me that his confidence has improved from even a year ago, he's not at all satisfied with where he stands as an overall player. "There's a long way to go for me in terms of where I want to be and where I want to go," Altidore said. "But I think I'm making the right steps that will help me keep improving."
The marquee matchup looming for the U.S. is the March 26 showdown at Mexico, a game that will be more than just your standard World Cup qualifier and not just because of the international rivalry. Mexico will be looking to avenge the historic 1-0 loss they suffered to the U.S. at home last August. While Altidore appreciates that Estadio Azteca is not the friendliest of venues for the U.S., he's also not intimidated by playing there.
"Mexico is our biggest rival," he explained. "I've only gotten one opportunity to play (at Estadio Azteca), and it was really special. It's a great atmosphere and it's a very emotional game. There are a lot of emotions in it for both teams. It's a big game, and you want to go and play well. It's definitely a difficult place to play. The oxygen (because of the altitude) plays a bit of a factor, and the crowd and the atmosphere ... I think it's fun. Anytime you play a top team, national team or club, it's going to be difficult. Azteca is no different."
Altidore's work off the field also continues. Last June, he told me about how he was working to provide the people of Haiti with new wells and clean water. "That project is going along great," he informed me this week. "We hope to have it completed this summer." His next charitable project following the well will involve the creation of summer camps for children, places where kids can "play and train." Maybe Altidore will be partially responsible for a future US Soccer star down the road.
One thing that really stood out during our talk is not that Altidore -- who turned just 23-years old this past fall -- knows where he wants to be as a footballer, but that he realizes he isn't yet at that level and that it's going to take plenty of work in order to get there. Those quick to point out that Altidore hasn't gotten it done on a consistent basis with the national team should realize that all indications are that the forward hasn't yet hit his peak. As his career continues to progress onward and upward, there are plenty of reasons to believe that there will eventually come a day when Altidore forever silences all of his critics.
Will that day arrive in 2013?
Zac has been covering Major League Soccer, RBNY, the USMNT and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.