Wasabi!" shouts the teppanyaki chef as he flips an egg onto the top of his toque. It's a Sunday evening in early spring, and Jozy Altidore sits at a large table in the Japanese restaurant he frequents on Sunday nights in Leeds, where he's lived since his loan to the Premier League club Hull City last August. So much about Altidore, the American striker, suggests he's a fully grown man—his physical bearing, 6'1" and a sculpted 195 pounds; the way he coolly navigates England's highways in his white BMW 6 Series; his eloquence when speaking about earthquake relief efforts in his parents' native Haiti—that it's easy to forget he turned 20 only last November. Then suddenly his youth will reveal itself. "Madonna's American?" he asks, incredulous. "Why does she talk like that?" He can't recall a time when the Michigan-born pop star didn't speak with a British accent.
Altidore's youth had been more evident eight months earlier as he sat thigh-to-thigh with the five other members of his immediate family—his father, Joseph; his mother, Gisele; his older brother, Janak; and his older sisters, Lindsay and Sadia—on a couch 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—specifically, about Gisele's desire for him to attend college. Janak has a degree in finance. Lindsay and Sadia are studying to be nurses like their mother. To Gisele a degree is essential to success in the U.S., and in the broader world.
"College life is beautiful," she said. "I wish you had a little of college. It would teach you decision making and a lot of things."
"Ma ...," said Jozy, glancing at a BlackBerry, feet propped up on a soccer ball.
"It is wrong that you haven't gone. Wrong. Yes, go to school, and at least stay a year in college, and life would be better."
Altidore would later admit he sometimes thinks about what it would be like to walk around a college campus with a book-laden backpack, to earn money 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 sounded like a soft definitely. Jozy Altidore might be the age of a college sophomore, but his life already includes accomplishments more noteworthy than mastery of Intro Psych. He's been a pro for four years, having scored his first goal in his 18th minute of play as a 16-year-old for MLS's New York Red Bulls, a 30-yard laser that seemed to portend the dawning of a new era. At 18 he was the youngest player to score for the U.S. national team in the modern era; at 19 he became the youngest U.S. international to score a hat trick. Two summers ago the Spanish club Villarreal coughed up $10 million—roughly double MLS's previous high transfer fee—to acquire him. Hull signed Altidore on loan for 2009--10, and his first experience in the world's richest league was one of ups and down: While his size and strength often made him a handful for defenders, Altidore scored just one goal in 29 appearances, and his season effectively came to an end with a red-card ejection last Saturday in a 1--0 loss to Sunderland that all but assured Hull's relegation from the Premiership.
Altidore is the sort of natural athlete who usually gravitates towards a more traditionally American sport in the U.S., but he resisted the pull of the hardwood or the football field thanks to his father's passion for soccer. Now he has the potential to become what many before him were supposed to be but were not: an American who matters in the world's game. He will enter the World Cup in South Africa this June as arguably the U.S. side's most dangerous goal-scoring threat, and he will be asked to bear on his precociously broad shoulders a significant portion of American soccer's collective dream—to make an impact on the world's biggest sporting stage, in a tournament in which the U.S. has not advanced to the semifinals since 1930.
In other words, despite Gisele's wishes, college can wait.
One way to know you've entered a home where soccer players were raised is to look up at a ceiling fan. It might wobble. It might be dinged. It might be cracked. Or, as in the Altidore's kitchen, it might have been reduced long ago to a wreck, its blades broken off by balls blasted by growing feet from a makeshift penalty spot in the adjoining living room. "I knew if I put in another fan," says Joseph, "they were going to break it again."