Big-money strikers are always pegged with an inordinate amount of hope, expectation and pressure. With all the money invested into transfer fees, trades and contracts comes the weight of expectation. Their transactional information never quite dissipates and they are indebted to live up to what was invested in them, fairly or unfairly.
And not only do they have to prove their worth once, they have to prove it again – and again, and again, and again. The production cycle is insatiable and every match represents a new challenge.
For various reasons on Wednesday night, three big-money strikers recently in the headlines had points to prove. Each of Wayne Rooney, Jozy Altidore and Christian Ramirez delivered timely and dominant multi-goal performances, leading their clubs to crucial victories in the process.
Rooney has long been under a microscope, with every touch granularly analyzed. He has carried an enormous burden of expectation at every stop in his career, from the Premier League to MLS.
As his career evolved through England as boy wonder at Everton, talisman at all-conquering Manchester United, back to Everton to be the homecoming king and now the face of D.C. United, his burden has been a constant. Whenever he's on the field, all eyes are magnetically trained to him.
More often than not, he delivers.
Rooney broke the internet on Sunday, leading D.C. United to an enthralling last-gasp win against Orlando City SC. The pyrotechnics continued Wednesday as Rooney scored a brace against Portland Timbers, leading D.C. to another win and dragging them one step closer to chasing down a playoff place in the Eastern Conference.
With his side down 1-0 in the first half, Rooney's first goal was one he's scored ad nauseam throughout his career: a perfectly timed run and clinical first-time finish. It set United up for a dominant second half, where Rooney starred again. He contributed to the build-up for their go-ahead goal, then hit the crossbar would a delightful chip and later fired a free kick for D.C.'s third goal, clinching three points for his side.
Rooney has done well to suppress the questions of commitment that often follow experienced European imports with both words and actions, but it will always be hovering around the corner. His first goalless spell or the club's first barren run of form, he could well be plagued with another round of loaded queries of 'does he really care?' all the same. For the time being, he has silenced the doubters.
As for Altidore, he's no stranger to the weight of expectation. Some soccer fans will forever look at Altidore and riff about unfulfilled potential.
Even since returning to MLS, scoring goals and winning titles, Altidore has been a frequent target for criticism, some warranted, much misguided, whether it's for his performances with the national team or incidents such as his red card this past Sunday against NYCFC for kicking Alexander Callens. With a fresh batch of condemnation cooked up after his ejection Altidore took the field for Toronto FC in the second leg of the Canadian Championship final.
He was masterful, just when he and the Reds needed it most.
Altidore's hat trick helped seal Concacaf Champions League qualification for this year's runners-up, and when he returns from his league suspension, Toronto FC will need his goals if they have any chance at returning to the playoffs to defend their MLS Cup crown.
Altidore doesn't seem to mind the role of the villain. Boos don't phase him and he never shies away from physicality nor trash talking. He plays on the edge, which sometimes leads to incidents like Sunday's red card but also helps fuel his hat-tricks.
Ramirez doesn't quite have the same burden of expectation like Altidore and Rooney, but he has never been handed anything in his career.
For Minnesota United FC, Ramirez delivered goals in his opportunities but the Loons continued to invest in more attacking talent until the fan-favorite was rendered superfluous to the team. He was sent to LAFC for a bundle of allocation money before his value dropped during fewer minutes on the field and more time on the sideline.
The competition in Minnesota would have been difficult if the club held onto him, but Ramirez faces an even more impossible logjam in Los Angeles as Bob Bradley's side is perfectly suited to playing with just one striker. Ramirez, Adama Diomande and Marco Urena are all quality forwards that deserve to start most games in normal situations, but LAFC are abnormally overstocked with attacking talent. Unless Bradley changes his tactical enterprise that has worked so well, two of the three will be left disappointed more often than not.
With Diomande out injured and Urena on the bench, Ramirez had an opportunity to stake his claim for playing time immediately. In his first start with the club on Wednesday night, Ramirez certainly gave Bradley a selection headache.
Ramirez scored both goals in LAFC's crucial 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake and formed an immediate connection with Carlos Vela. His style perfectly jives with his teammates, and as Diomande proved a few months prior, he'll stay in the team if he keeps scoring goals.
Like any other striker, goals are paramount. As long as Ramirez, Rooney and Altidore keep scoring, everything will be fine. On Wednesday night the trio stepped up when needed most, both individually and for their clubs. But, just like the striker's mentality of amnesia when chances are missed, these performances only buy them so much goodwill.
They'll be expected to prove it again – and again, and again, and again.