Every four years, Jozy Altidore personally makes sure high-level international soccer keeps coming back to Utah.
If not for Altidore’s left-footed goal in the 73th minute Tuesday night, Rio Tinto Stadium would have been remembered as the site of a rare non-victory for the U.S. men’s national team in a World Cup qualifier on home soil.
Even worse, this night would have become known as the time when the Riot — the stadium’s nickname — was too quiet. Altidore rewrote that script, to the relief of anyone who’s hoping this team chooses to return in another four years.
Taking a clever pass from Fabian Johnson, Altidore knocked home the only goal in a 1-0 victory over Honduras. His clutch kick came much later than his game-winner in the first half against El Salvador in 2009, and this delivery was just in time.
If there was a certain inevitability to his goal, considering how the Americans continually pressured goalkeeper Noel Valladares in the second half, there was also the element of Utah paranoia creeping into the proceedings. Anything other than a U.S. victory would have been unacceptable, and you just knew the potential tie was going to be our fault.
Late in the first half, highly respected ESPN announcer Ian Darke derided the fans for “watching serenely in the sun,” as opposed to creating the traditionally raucous atmosphere that has made the Salt Lake Valley attractive to the U.S. team during the last three World Cup qualifying cycles.
Maybe the strangely subdued mood is what happens when commemorative wool scarves are distributed at the gate on a 93 degree evening. In any case, the atmosphere changed dramatically in the second half, when the U.S. fans responded to the home team’s offensive flurry. The biggest crowd (20,250) in stadium history witnessed a relentless effort from the Americans, resulting in coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s raising his fists in triumph at the end.
“Huge compliment to the team,” Klinsmann said.
And no blaming of the local fans, thankfully.
The crowd included a healthy number of Hondurans and out-of-state visitors, but Utahns may have been held responsible if the Americans had settled for only their third tie (with no defeats) in 25 home-field qualifiers since 2001. A depleted Honduras team almost managed to make its defensive posture work, but ultimately could not withstand the U.S. attack.
“The big picture is that we are growing with every game,” Klinsmann said.
The longtime international coach knows what’s required to compete at the highest level, and this performance offered slightly more evidence of progress. “I think we’re going to slowly get there,” he said.
Making it to Brazil in 2014 is not much of an issue anymore. The Americans lead their regional standings with four games remaining in the long, drawn-out qualifying process that resumes in September and concludes in mid-October.
Next month, the team will return to Rio Tinto to play Cuba in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a lower-profile tournament that may enable Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando and Kyle Beckerman to take the field. They watched from the sideline Tuesday, when Klinsmann used three other substitutes once his team took the lead.
Even without the hometown stars participating, Utah once again became part of the U.S. trek to the World Cup. The Americans will be able to trace their successful qualifying bid largely to a three-win sequence in June, with Altidore scoring in each game.
Thanks to him, we’re bonded with this team through 2014 — with the potential for another stop in Sandy in ’17.