After sitting on the bench for European clubs during most of the season, the 19-year-old became the youngest American with an international hat trick, leading the United States over Trinidad and Tobago 3-0 in a World Cup qualifier on Wednesday night.
He was acquired by Spain's Villarreal from Major League Soccer's Red Bulls last June, scored one goal in six matches and then was loaned in January to second division Xerez.
"Anywhere you go, I think you have to learn that you have to earn it from Day 1, and it's a tough lesson, I think, for a lot of young players to learn, including myself," he said. "I think I'm finally understanding, you know, what's needed to be successful there. It's going to be a process. It's a work in progress. It's not going to happen overnight."
Making just his fourth international start, Altidore connected in the 13th, 71st and 89th minutes, all three times off passes from Landon Donovan. He also scored as a substitute in the 77th minute last Saturday to start the U.S. comeback from a two-goal deficit in a 2-2 tie at El Salvador.
"He's a player that, you know, we have known for a while is going to be a big part of our team going forward, but things need to be earned. Things need to come at the right time," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said.
Bradley has six goals in nine international appearances. He eclipsed the mark for youngest hat trick set in 2004, when 20-year-old Eddie Johnson scored three times as a substitute in a 6-0 win over Panama in the semifinals of qualifying.
Teammates praised him, but made clear he's just starting out.
"It's one game, so let's not get carried away," Donovan said. "We're happy for him, but there's a lot of guys that have been doing that for a long time."
The United States (2-0-1), seeking its sixth straight World Cup berth, leads the final round of North and Central American and Caribbean qualifying with seven points, followed by Costa Rica (2-1) with six after a 1-0 victory over El Salvador. Honduras (1-1-1) has four following a 3-1 win over visiting Mexico (1-2), which has three. El Salvador and T&T (both 0-1-2) have two points each.
The top three nations qualify, and No. 4 goes to a playoff.
"This is a big setback," Trinidad's Carlos Edwards said. "We need to polish up on our mistakes."
Bradley made four lineup changes, inserting Altidore, goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Pablo Mastroeni and defender Oguchi Onyewu. He dropped DaMarcus Beasley from midfield to defender in place of Heath Pearce.
"This is my first time ever playing left back for 90 minutes, so it was different," Beasley said. "It's not something I've ever thought about playing. But Bob asked me to play that position, and wherever he wants me on the field, I'll play."
Altidore was paired up front with Brian Ching. Donovan (left) and Clint Dempsey (right) were in advanced midfield roles.
"Jozy is more of a presence up there than Landon as far as physically, being able to win balls in the air and hold the ball up a little bit more," Dempsey said. "I think Landon is a player that is better at going at people than playing with his back to goal."
No. 75 Trinidad and Tobago had just one shot on goal against the world's 17th-ranked team, Keon Daniel's attempt on a rebound after a free kick bounced off a defensive wall in the 63rd minute.
"We just weren't very good tonight," Soca Warriors captain Dennis Lawrence said. "When you come to the U.S., and you don't perform up to your capabilities, that's the result you're going to be leaving with."
Before a pro-American crowd of 27,959 that was the largest to attend a soccer match in Tennessee, Howard returned from a one-game suspension for yellow cards. He sent a free kick right at Stern John in the sixth minute, but it bounced off the forward and went wide.
"I tried to catch it on a hop, but I ended up catching it when it was down," Howard said. "Good think I hit it hard. Otherwise we could have been in danger. But those crazy things happen."
Seven minutes later, Bocanegra played a long ball up the left to Ching. He headed it to Donovan, who chested the ball, then crossed to Altidore. He broke free of Aklie Edwards and beat goalkeeper Clayton Ince from 6 yards.
He got the second goal after taking a pass from Donovan and faking out Lawrence. On the final goal, Michael Bradley received a long pass and played the ball into the penalty area to Donovan, who bent it back to Altidore. His shot from 19 yards bounced in either off the hands of Ince or past the goalkeeper's arms.
"On the first goal, I thought it was good movement by our team, a great ball in by Landon. All he had to do was put his foot in on it," Dempsey said. "On his third goal, you know, he was a little bit lucky, getting under the keeper. I think the most impressive thing about Jozy tonight was his second goal. It just showed that it's a world-class finish. And it's just good that a player at his age is able to do those type of things."
Notes: U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati said letters will soon be going out to about 65 cities, stadium authorities and sports commissions inquiring about interest in hosting matches at the 2018 or 2022 World Cups, should the U.S. be awarded hosting rights next year.
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