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WASABI!" SHOUTED THE JAPANESE TEPPANYAKI CHEF AS HE USED A SPATULA TO FLIP AN EGG ONTO THE TOP OF HIS TOQUE. IT WAS LATE MARCH, AND JOZY ALTIDORE SAT AT A LARGE TABLE IN THE BENIHANA-STYLE RESTAURANT HE FREQUENTS ON SUNDAY NIGHTS IN LEEDS, ENGLAND, WHERE HE HAS LIVED SINCE LATE LAST AUGUST WHEN HE BECAME A STRIKER FOR THE PREMIER LEAGUE CLUB HULL CITY. SO MUCH ABOUT Altidore suggests that he's a fully grown man—his imposing physique, 6' 1" and a sculpted 195 pounds; his smiling confidence; his cool navigation of British highways in his white BMW 6-Series; his eloquence when he spoke on CNN about the importance of supporting earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, the nation of his parents' birth—that it's easy to forget that he turned 20 only in November. Then, suddenly, his youth will reveal itself. He's too young to remember, for instance, when Madonna did not speak with a British accent, and he can't believe she's from Michigan. "Madonna's American?" he asked, incredulous. "I thought she was from Europe somewhere. Why does she talk like that?"
In July 2009 his age was more apparent as he sat thigh to thigh with his father, Joseph; his mother, Gisèle; his older brother, Janak; and his older sisters, Lindsay and Sadia, on a new leather sectional sofa in their living room in Boca Raton, Fla. They talked about the future of the baby of the family, known to them by his given name, Josmer. Gisèle said she wanted him to attend college. Janak has a degree in finance. Both Lindsay and Sadia are studying to be nurses, like their mother. College, to Gisèle, is essential to a person's success. "College life is beautiful," she said. "It would teach you decision making and a lot of things."
"Ma...," said Jozy, glancing at his BlackBerry, his feet propped up on a soccer ball.
"It is wrong that you haven't gone. Wrong," Gisèle continued. "Yes, go to school, and at least stay a year in college, and life would be better." Jozy, having heard her pleas before, didn't respond.
Later he would admit that he sometimes thinks about what it would be like to go to college, to walk around a campus with a book-filled backpack, to earn money by busing tables at night, as his father once did. "I don't blame my mom for wanting me to go," he said. "She wants the best for me. I definitely think I'm going to do it at some point."
It was a soft definitely. Altidore might be the age of most college sophomores, but his life already includes accomplishments far beyond mastery of Intro to Psych. Four years ago, at 16, he scored his first professional goal, in his 18th minute of play for Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls—a 30-yard game-winning laser that seemed to portend the dawning of a new era for U.S. soccer. At 18, in February 2008, he became the youngest player to score a goal for the U.S. national team in the modern era, in a 2-2 draw against Mexico. And 14 months later he became the youngest U.S. national to score an international hat trick, in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad and Tobago.
Two summers ago the powerful Spanish club Villarreal paid $10 million—roughly twice the highest transfer fee a foreign club had ever paid MLS—to acquire Altidore. This season Villarreal loaned him to Hull City, where more often than not he has started at striker in the world's best soccer league.
Altidore has trod ground on which no other U.S. player of his age has walked, and he has the potential to become what many other players before him, such as his friend Freddy Adu, did not: an American who truly matters in the world's game. He will enter the World Cup this June as the U.S. side's biggest goal-scoring threat, particularly if his good friend and fellow forward Charlie Davies does not fully recover from the injuries he sustained in a terrible car crash last October. Altidore will be asked to take on his broad shoulders a significant portion of the U.S. scoring burden at a tournament in which his country has not once advanced past the quarterfinals since 1930.
In other words, college can wait.
One way to know you're in a house where soccer players were raised is to look at a ceiling fan. It might wobble. It might be dinged. It might be cracked. Or like the fan in the Altidores' kitchen, it might have had its blades broken off by balls blasted by growing feet from an improvised penalty spot in the living room. "I knew if I put in another fan," says Joseph Altidore, "they were going to break it."