SEATTLE – Jozy Altidore is in a zone.
After going two years without scoring a goal for the US national team, it suddenly seems like no one can keep him from finding the back of the net – he scored his third goal in as many games in a 2-0 win over Panama on Tuesday night.
But it also seems like he wants to avoid anything that might snap him out of that zone. Altidore has gone on media blackout since speaking with reporters after his drought-busting goal against Germany last month. That strike snapped an agonizing spell that lasted 13 caps and dated all the way back to the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
He has told U.S. Soccer’s press officials that he prefers to stay focused and avoid any distractions. And while many on the outside have seen a striker who couldn’t be stopped this past season for his club side struggle puzzlingly at the international level, his teammates see the same old Jozy.
“For me, he’s the exact same player,” midfielder Michael Bradley told reporters after Tuesday’s victory. “You guys sometimes look at things differently than we do. For us, he’s an important guy. … He’s a complete forward.”
US PLAYER RATINGS: Altidore gets top marks for another strong performance
Altidore’s 36th-minute goal that opened the scoring on Tuesday night was what shows up on the score sheet. But his Man of the Match performance included so much more. There was also the bruising, physical play to help bring the US attack into the final third, opening up space for Bradley to dominate and for Eddie Johnson to cause damage up the right side. But there was also the presence on the ball.
The US nearly scored a late third goal of a fantastic give-and-go in which Altidore played DaMarcus Beasley alone into the box with a light touch and vision that perhaps surprised those who have been concerned only with Altidore putting the ball in the net. Beasley put the ball off the post, but the collective gasps from the 40,847 at CenturyLink Field were proof of an appreciation for the interplay.
"It's not just the goals," US veteran DaMarcus Beasley told reporters. "How many times did he come back and win the ball from the midfield? At least two or three. It’s not just him scoring, it’s the other things he does to help our team win. That’s what a complete forward is about and everyone is so proud of Jozy."
US coach Jurgen Klinsmann has often been a critic of Altidore’s work ethic and again admitted Tuesday night that “you’ve also got to kick him a little bit in his backside” at times, but he also understands how the weight of a scoring drought can have a profound effect on a striker. And he’s appreciative of the work Altidore has put in.
“He’s playing a position that I played my whole career for 18 years at big clubs, so I know what’s going through his mind, I know when he struggles,” Klinsmann said in the postgame press conference. “And what we demand of him in then, when you struggle, just fight you way back into the game and do your job for the team. And how he’s doing that in the last couple of games is absolutely outstanding.”
Now it seems like the game is coming easier to Altidore. As he’s found a groove in World Cup qualifying, his confidence seems much improved. As a result, the entire US offense has benefited.
Or maybe it’s the other way around.
“When we play this well,” Altidore said in audio provided by U.S. Soccer, “whoever’s playing forward is going to have success, and fortunately, that’s me.”
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com.