Last week, I felt confident enough about Jozy Altidore's form that I wrote a column in which the premise was "Hey, I know you've long been frustrated by his injuries and lulls in production, but this guy's really good and you should probably start paying attention."
Then he went out on Saturday night and ripped the Philadelphia Union apart in Chester. Toronto won 3-1 and it wasn't actually that close, and Altidore was pretty easily the best player on the field for either side. His hold-up play broke Philadelphia's shape; his passing cut them apart; and his finishing salted the game away.
Altidore, who was sold for $10 million in his teens and scored 51 goals across two seasons in a very good league (Eredivisie) in his early 20s, is currently on the best run of form that I've ever seen from him. He has a goal or assist in each of his last four games, and — more importantly for his long-term impact, since there will be dry spells in terms of finding net — he looks like he's really, truly embraced the role of a center forward.
Folks may not remember this, but a million years ago when he broke into the league Jozy was sometimes deployed as a second striker, and sometimes as an inverted winger. He wasn't naturally a battler, and his movement in possession was almost always about finding room for himself rather than creating room for others.
"I think he draws a lot of attention, which allows Sebastian [Giovinco] to find that little bit of extra space on the field. And I think they are both doing a great job looking for each other and combining with each other," is how TFC head coach Greg Vanney put it after the win. And then, with the upcoming emphasis mine:
"He is massive and he is probably underrated in terms of the amount of defensive work that he gives us as a striker. He does a lot of work, he is responsible and he is always looking for ways he can help out the team."
Altidore has turned himself into a beyond-serviceable defensive striker. He's not David Villa, but he's not the old Jozy Altidore, either. Every minute he's been on the pitch over the past month, he's looked like a complete, fully formed striker. The old criticisms about workrate, willingness to do the hold-up play, and weird passivity in front of goal don't look like they apply any longer.
And here is where I'll be making my stand: The guy's 26 years old. His career path, like the career paths of most human beings, has been one of peaks and valleys, fits and starts. He's borne high expectations and hit some of them, while missing out on others. Such is life.
Some players, and some people in any walk of life, seem to avoid the valleys. I have an idea as to why those folks "get it" earlier and are able to excel earlier (for the record: I was not one of those people), and I respect the hell out of it. Still, I can't help but have sympathy for those who take the road that's more traveled.
That's what "excelling in your mid-20s is" for US soccer, by the way. Here's a non-exhaustive list of guys who only started scratching their potential at age 25 or later: Chris Wondolowski, Herculez Gomez, Benny Feilhaber, Lee Nguyen, Jermaine Jones, Geoff Cameron. Want non-USMNTers? How about Fanendo Adi, Javier Morales, Kei Kamara and Didier Drogba.
Altidore is, I think, in the process of joining that group, except he has a 30-goal season in Holland and 34 USMNT goals under his belt already. Maybe that should be a bigger part of the conversation?
Altidore now averaging a goal or an assist or a drawn penalty (Giovinco converts) every 117 minutes of MLS action. Not bad. #TFCLive— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) August 21, 2016
Some people take longer to understand the day-to-day requirements of their jobs than others. Some people don't acquire real mastery until their mid-20s, or even much later. For whatever reason, that's what Altidore has turned out to be.
Regardless, the important takeaway is this: Watch him play now, and you'll see he's realizing something close to his full potential. This guy's really good and you should probably start paying attention.