SEATTLE -- The world's mysteries include the cultural differences that allow reporters from some cultures to cheer openly in press boxes while reporters from other cultures remain motionless and expressionless, aware that cheering might bring ostracism, banishment or lifelong humiliation.
So as a member of one of the latter cultures, I found it unforgettable in 2007 at Wembley Stadium when, one row before me, several members of the Croatian media not only cheered a stirring 3-2 win over England in Euro 2008 qualifying but, as I recall, ran up and down the aisles hugging each other.
It's sad to begrudge a little happiness in a hard, hard world, but I tried anyway.
On Tuesday night, in a gorgeous and raucous CenturyLink Field, Jozy Altidore flat-out excelled. His apparent growth came as a cog of a United States team's apparent growth, the kind of growth that did not nap on its own 1-0 lead in the World Cup qualifier against Panama. Finishing a picturesque play Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley and Fabian Johnson had initiated on 36 minutes, Altidore scored for the third consecutive game after not scoring for, OK, a while (it was his first international goal since November 15, 2011).
"Often you forget how young he still is," manager Jurgen Klinsmann said, the answer being 23 years, seven months and one week.
Steeped in my training, I did not applaud Altidore's goal. I did not run up and down the aisles hugging any of my American cohorts. I did not let out a guttural boom of joy as a Panamanian journalist did upon an apparent Panamanian goal that met negation from the offside flag. I didn't even smile. I just jotted down notes.
But here's the thing: Back in the fall of 2009, when Altidore still dwelled on the other side of age 20, I visited him at Hull. Hull means Kingston-Upon-Hull, England, where Altidore had turned up on a Premier League squad, and where I anticipated some of the same dreary utterances you get from soccer players in Europe, where interviews aren't mandated so the athletes sometimes stop by to mumble something that might make your brain die of numbness.
Instead, I got this fine human conversation with a 19-year-old I really, really liked. I liked when he said his car had just arrived from Spain with the steering wheel on the wrong side so that he kept smacking into curbs. I liked when he shooed a bee and confessed that he feared the wee species. I liked his description of a hotel staff that looked after him in a town that took a horrid bombing in World War II and a wretched economic decline in the 20th-century fishing-rights "Cod Wars" with Iceland.
I liked -- no, loved -- his family story, among the best immigration stories I know, of his Haitian-immigrant parents who met on a bus in New Jersey and worked voraciously to raise four children in South Florida, including that stretch when his mother worked overnight shifts as a nurse and his father worked all day delivering packages.
On the train back to London, I felt that if Altidore thrived through the years, it would not rank among the world's most horrible occurrences. It did not mean I would go too blind to notice, say, when he dived against Slovenia in the 2010 World Cup to get the free kick that led to the late goal that led to the disallowance that led to the righteous furor that had little merit because of the dive. But when Altidore scored 31 goals for the Dutch club AZ Alkmaar this past season, I did not find this to be the most objectionable thing of which I had heard in life.
Form can come and go, of course, with soccer more than in most games. It's foolish to make too much of one night. On Tuesday, though, the United States had itself an all-grown-up night, and Altidore had himself an all-grown-up night.
"You've got to give credit to Jozy," the sage DaMarcus Beasley said. "He doesn't stop. He got a lot of stick for not scoring for this team." And while Beasley realizes that's part of the deal for a striker, he said, "I'm happy for him that he's putting the ball in the net right now . . . It's not just him scoring. How many times did he come back and win the ball? At least two or three."
And: "Thing is, he's only 23."
Said Klinsmann, "You've got to give him a bad game or a bad performance" because of his youth, "but you've also here and there got to kick him a little bit in his backside when you think he needs it. It's just normal."
And: "He learns to use his body as well. He's such a physical presence and sometimes he doesn't use it. I think he's just now starting to use it to shield the ball and do a lot of work for us. It's really nice to see that coming along."
And: "I know when he struggles and what we demand for him is, 'Man, when you struggle, just fight your way back into the game.'"
As the most compelling forward on the American side, Altidore's massive shoulders will haul a heap of hopes. Any further goals will bring reassurance to the stands after all the unevenness along his way. They will not bring any running up and down the press-box aisles, not in our particular culture. I don't even root quietly in my head for one side or the other. But whenever Jozy Altidore scores, let me confess that it does not ruin my day.