By Mike Woitalla
He now lives in Canada, of course, playing for 2016 MLS Cup runner-up Toronto FC, but when Jozy Altidore returns to his hometown of Boca Raton, Florida, it’s to the same house he grew up in. And in it are reminders of how he acquired the soccer skills that led to an MLS pro contract at age 16, to Spain’s La Liga, the English Premier League and the Dutch Eredivisie, to the Olympics, a couple World Cups and No. 3 on the all-time USA leading scorers’ list.
Jozy Altidore grew up in Boca Raton, Florida.
“If you ever come to my house, still the same house, all the ceiling fans are broken.” Altidore says. “The one in my brother’s room only has three blades.”
Jozy and his older brother, Janak, played lots of indoor soccer -- and didn’t always keep their shots low.
“It’s kind of sad,” Jozy says with a chuckle. “I’ll bring friends to my house and they’ll say, ‘Jozy? You played all over the world. You made all this money. Look at your fans!’”
Jozy’s father, Joseph, didn’t fix the fans back then because he figured they’d get broken again. Now they serve as a reminder of how much fun the kids had.
“He did tell us to play in the garage,” Jozy says, “And we did that a lot. We always took turns shooting and playing goalkeeper.”
One day when Jozy, at age 8, and his brother and sisters were kicking around with their dad at Veterans’ Park, they were spotted by Josef Schulz, who was about to launch his eponymous youth academy.
Schulz, who although a former Austrian pro player described his coaching philosophy as mix of Brazilian and Dutch, told Jozy’s dad, “One day your son is going to play in a World Cup.”
Altidore joined Schulz’s club, which played in a lot of 3-v-3 competitions. “He always believed in the importance of playing in small spaces,” says Altidore.
Schulz, who died in 2013 at age 61, had a profound influence on Altidore.
“He was kind of a nut case," Altidore says with affection. "But the environment he put me in was terrific. He trained us like we were little pros, but he made it fun. He called it serious fun. It was serious in the sense that you wanted to get better and you understand how you have to behave, how you have to train. At the same time, he had a way of doing things that were fun.
“You wanted to win and you wanted to have fun. Everyday you wanted to do that. He had a way. I didn’t want to miss a day.
“That is biggest challenge coaches have -- is to make it fun. If it’s not fun, it doesn’t work, even in pro soccer, at the highest level. … Bruce Arena, for example, he has a way of making it fun.”
When Altidore was at the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, California, one of his coaches was former U.S. national team player Brian Maisonneuve, now associate head coach at his alma mater Indiana University.
“He was a great example of a coach who pushed us while engaging us, and keeping it fresh and keeping it fun,” says Altidore.
Jozy Altidore USA scoring highlight reel:
Altidore, who scored his first professional goal at age 16 after joining the New York Red Bulls, debuted for the national team at age 18. When he moved to Spain’s Villarreal it was on a $10 million transfer fee.
When he was growing up, his parents, immigrants from Haiti, lived paycheck to paycheck.
“I used to have a pair of cleats for a year and a half,” he says. “When I wanted a new pair, my dad would say, ‘They're how much!?"
Nowadays, the latest cleats from the popular brands are sold at prices in the range of $199.99 to $299.99.
His memories of wanting to get new cleats and the staggering prices of today’s soccer gear prompted Altidore to embark on a venture -- an online soccer community where players can sell and buy used gear, or donate it.
“It’s not a money grab or get-rich scheme,” says Altidore of Footymarket.com. “There are too many kids who don’t have the ability to get quality cleats and in America that should never happen.
“If you have a pair of cleats and want to get the new ones in green, you can put the red ones on the site and people will be able bid on them to buy. Instead of buying a soccer ball at the store for $50, we’re hoping a kid can find one on our site for a few bucks. It also cuts down on waste, helps all to be equal, and at the same time feel good about helping others.”
Besides providing a way to buy, sell and swap used footwear, apparel and soccer equipment -- kind of a soccer-specific eBay -- Footymarket.com facilitates donations to non-profit soccer organizations.
In 2010, following the devastating Haiti earthquake, Altidore organized a donation drive and created the Jozy Altidore Foundation, which has supported clean water efforts for Haiti. And it teamed up with the St. Luke Foundation to enable Haitians to watch last summer’s Copa America Centenario, for which Haiti had qualified.
“I was in Haiti with my mom during the 2002 World Cup, and it was really difficult to watch the games,” Altidore said. “I said if I have chance I’m going to help here. When Haiti qualified for the 2016 Copa Centenario, it was big deal. They hadn’t qualified for the World Cup since 1974. I partnered with St. Luke. Projection screens were set up for public viewing areas and it turned out to be a big success.”
Altidore, who turned 27 last November, has scored 37 goals for the USA, putting him third behind Landon Donovan (57) and Clint Dempsey (52) on the all-time list. Last year, he broke the USA record for World Cup qualifying goals with his with 16th -- a figure he'll aim to add to when in March the USA continues its quest to reach the 2018 World Cup.