SANDY, Utah — There was a moment in the second half Tuesday night when Jozy Altidore, the enigmatic striker for the US national soccer team, watched a defender for Honduras send a pass back toward the goalkeeper. It was a steamy night at Rio Tinto Stadium and Altidore had been running for much of the game; he could have easily stayed put and watched the goalkeeper, Noel Valladares, take the ball and boot it downfield.
Instead, Altidore stirred, sprinting toward the endline. As Valladares received the ball, he saw the pressure from Altidore and had to shift quickly to the side, ultimately struggling to get a hurried blast away just as Altidore slid nearby.
At the time, it was not a particularly memorable moment — certainly not compared with the game-winning goal Altidore scored in the 73d minute, pushing the US to an important 1-0 victory. But that sequence was important all the same, if only because it was emblematic of what Altidore has become for the US lately: a relentless, energetic presence who delivers that which a striker is charged with providing. Over the past month for the US, Altidore has pushed and prodded, stalked, and eventually scored.
“I thought he was going to be a handful,” Honduras midfielder Roger Espinoza said after the game. “And he was.”
It has not always been that way. Altidore’s goal Tuesday was his fourth in the past four games, making him just the sixth US player to have such a scoring stretch; before this surge, however, he had not scored an international goal since 2011, a puzzling drought that brought continued criticism, particularly as Altidore began to score more regularly for his Dutch club team, AZ.
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann, a star striker for Germany in his playing career, used a combination of tough love and blunt reality checks in an attempt to coax the best results from Altidore. Most memorably, he dropped Altidore from the US roster for two qualifying matches late last year, a decision that was questioned by many but, in retrospect, may have stirred Altidore from his slumber. He scored 31 goals for AZ this season and, Klinsmann said, showed up for training ahead of this month’s international schedule with an obvious bounce.
From the first day of practice in Cleveland, Klinsmann said, it was clear Altidore was energized. In this four-game stretch — covering three World Cup qualifiers and an exhibition win over Germany — he has demonstrated a greater ability both in front of the goal and in the run of play, using his body to hold off defenders and offer openings for teammates to pass him the ball.
It must be said: The service he has received has been much improved, too, with midfielders like Michael Bradley and Graham Zusi consistently playing precise balls to him in critical areas. Fabian Johnson, who has played both on defense and in the midfield, has also repeatedly linked up with Altidore, providing pretty assists on his goals the past two games.
On Tuesday, Johnson slipped to the endline and cut back a perfect pass that Altidore pounced on, using his left foot to angle the ball past Valladares.
“Jozy has just been a beast of late,” Zusi said. “When a guy is in as good form as he is, you just want to get the ball to him as much as possible. It definitely helps knowing that if you whip the ball in, he’s at a point where he’s going to finish it.”
The value of a top striker is immense for the US, particularly as it slogs through CONCACAF qualifying. Beyond that, Altidore’s production is critical because it offers a complement to Clint Dempsey, who is known internationally as a scoring threat. With Altidore running well, even the top teams the US will face in Brazil will have to work to contain two offensive options.
Altidore has generally avoided interviews lately. After Tuesday’s game, he answered a few questions and did his best to deflect the attention, praising his teammates and calling the past month the best stretch the US has had in the past two years.
To be sure, there have been plenty of other positives: The defenders have recorded four shutouts in six qualifying games this year, while the midfield has hardly missed Landon Donovan, especially as Zusi continues to become more consistent. Klinsmann, too, seems to be settling in and finding ways to get the most from his players regardless of what situation, or position, he puts them in.
Even Altidore smiled when it was mentioned to him that it surely cannot hurt to be playing for a coach who used to be a feared scorer.
“I think Jurgen — he knows a little bit about soccer,” Altidore said, before adding, “I still think there’s a long way to go for me in terms of a learning curve.”
For a 23-year-old, that is surely the best approach, and Klinsmann has echoed the sentiment, noting the difference in the speed of the game between the Dutch league and international matches is enormous.
The question now, of course, is how Altidore reacts to the vacation that he and the other European-based players began Wednesday. European leagues do not begin until next month, and the next World Cup qualifier is not until September. At that point, the US is likely to need just one more win to clinch a place in Brazil.
Altidore, who may well be playing for a more high-level team than AZ then, will figure prominently in the US plans. It is suddenly impossible to imagine him not making an impact.
“We knew he could do this,” Dempsey said. “The goals came in Europe, so we knew eventually they would come here, too.”