In the parlance of coaches, he "gets it." Some players learn much earlier than others of the commitment, the mentality, and the discipline needed to sharpen skills, talents, and tenacity at each ascending rung of competition. He may not, as did Adu and Johnson, land a rich MLS contract before heading overseas, but the big bucks and bright lights, whenever and however they come his way, aren't likely to knock him, and his career, off the rails.
"Jozy has very good experience at a youth level and he's still a very young man, but he recognizes both his ability to play at the highest level and also what is important in the life of a professional soccer player," says U.S. under-23 coach Peter Nowak, who named Altidore to the 20-man roster that opens CONCACAF Olympic qualifying play Tuesday against Cuba, and verbally sparred with Adu on a few occasions at D.C. United.
"Not only education, but a soccer education I would say. Not just scoring goals but understanding the whole game, watching games and educating yourself so that every day and every practice you can learn. He absorbs information very fast and has both feet on the ground too, which in a young age is an important quality to have."
Nothing could have prepared Adu for the attention and adulation that swept him away, as a 14-year-old pro, when he signed with MLS. Far too light and spindly to win duels against grown men, and fawned over by reporters and sponsors at every turn, and earning a million or so a year in salary and endorsements before he could legally drive, Adu endured a few rough seasons at D.C. and a trade to Real Salt Lake before a move to Benfica finally reminded him what it's all about.
"This has the same feel as when I first came into the league," he said of his first few weeks in Portugal. "I'm doing like, 25 interviews today, and I'm thinking, 'This is just crazy,' but at least now I know how to deal with it.
"Before I didn't, but now I've been through it before. I'm older, I'm more mature, and I know how to handle it. All I have to do is go there and prove to my coach and my teammates and everyone that I'm going to make a difference right away."
Johnson may yet make a difference at Fulham, but he, too needed some setbacks -- including injury-ravaged seasons in 2005 and 2006 -- and a trade from FC Dallas to Kansas City to prepare him for a move overseas.
"He's been plagued with injuries and has had distractions here and there," said Kansas City coach Curt Onalfo when Johnson signed with Fulham in January, after scoring 15 goals in his one season with the Wizards. "I don't think he was ready for the move overseas when he came to our team but I think he's ready now. He just needed to mature a little bit and focus on playing, and not all the other stuff."
Altidore credits his coaches and his parents for a remarkable poise and maturity that prompted MLS and the Red Bulls (formerly MetroStars) to sign him as a 16-year-old in 2006. Since then, all he's done is score a dozen professional goals, notch four goals at the FIFA U-20 World Cup last summer, and nail a spectacular header in his first national team start against Mexico last month. He doesn't turn 19 until November, by which time he could have a European address. That isn't likely to faze him, nor will the bright lights (Adu) and the bling (Johnson) that took a toll on two of his U.S. teammates.
"My parents kept everything balanced for me and they really stressed the fact that soccer is not always going to be there so always have something to fall back on because you never know what could happen," says Altidore as he prepares to wear his country's colors in yet another international competition.
"From a young age, they disciplined me in the right ways and showed me the right way to do things. They tried to put me in the right environments when I was young, whether it be soccer or school or anything like that. They made a lot of sacrifices for me so I definitely credit them for who I am right now."