I've been aboard the Jozy Altidore hype train since his first pro season in 2006, two years before I boarded another train to Port Huron, Mich., crossed the Canadian border and took up residency in the Great White North, where, ironically, Altidore would turn up years later in January 2015.
His arrival in Toronto offered me a front row seat to watch Altidore perform in his prime while simultaneously taking in all the commentary in the USA and Canada regarding a player who had become such a polarizing figure. And I can't help but see an American soccer community that readily criticizes Altidore for what he isn’t instead of recognizing — and appreciating — what he is.
In fairness, it took Toronto FC fans two years to realize that Altidore is the most well-rounded No. 9 in Major League Soccer — a statement numerous fans and pundits in the US will contest until they're blue in the face.
And that leads me to the question: Why do Canadian soccer fans seemingly appreciate Altidore more than his own fellow countrymen?
Jozy's body of work
Even when Altidore has approached the arbitrary expectations American soccer fans have set for him over the years, the bar seems to get re-raised to yet another unattainable level. There seems to be a constant “Yeah, but…” in US soccer conversations when you mention Altidore's name.
It boggles the mind given Altidore has been the best player in MLS since last summer. His production of 20 goals and nine assists through 29 MLS fixtures — including the playoffs — speaks for itself.
Yet Altidore, at the prune-eating age of 27, is viewed as a member of the “old guard” by many US national team fans. He’s seen by some as a reflection of a USMNT past that includes a failure to progress beyond the second round at back-to-back World Cups, tournaments which saw Altidore hampered by ankle (2010) and hamstring (2014) injuries.
For others, Altidore doesn’t fit the mold of what a modern No. 9 should be. They incorrectly view him as a lumbering target man whose game is limited by his hulk-like frame. Altidore’s second goal in a 2-0 win over Houston last weekend dispelled that myth. Heck, he also demonstrated during Toronto FC’s playoff run last season that he’s more mobile than he’s ever been.
And that’s before discussing intangibles like Altidore’s vision and soft feet and his ability to pick out short and long passes as well as any other target man in the league. Hence, his nine assists during that 29-match stretch.
So if a player passes the eye test and numbers test, but the perception and criticism persists, then doesn't it have to be attributed to a discernible bias against one of the most prolific scorers the US has ever produced?
A case of the past influencing the present
I feel what might be at play is that Altidore is being held up to the arbitrary, lofty standard American soccer fans set for him a decade ago, when he was sold to Spanish club Villarreal for an MLS-record $10 million before ultimately toiling from club to club in Europe.
He benefited and suffered from that transaction, which raised expectations to heights rarely thrust upon American-born players.
A prolonged scoring tear at AZ Alkmaar was trumped by a difficult stretch in England, which inevitably led to more criticism. He once again had fallen victim to the pass-fail grade American fans give players who move to the English Premier League.
Perhaps it's an inferiority complex that leads to this blanket branding of players who don't succeed in England, where hype quickly diminishes. But the end result is that for guys like Altidore who have that experience in their past, it seems to cloud any subsequent exercise at objective evaluation.
Toronto FC captain Michael Bradley was asked this question exactly one year ago, a few weeks before Altidore began to set the league on fire.
“It’s so easy — in some ways shallow — for anyone to look and say, ‘Oh, Jozy hasn’t scored this season,’” Bradley told me.
He later added: “It’s an easy way out for anyone who doesn’t really understand the game and doesn’t know how to watch the game and pick up on all the little details.”
Orlando’s Canadian striker is arguably held in higher regard by American soccer fans and experts than Altidore, who has garnered more respect in Canada than his Brampton, Ontario-born counterpart.
Pretty bizarre when you consider Altidore has a decent chance of becoming the USA's all-time leading scorer.
Perhaps it's time to judge Altidore on what he is instead of what he isn't.
Kurt Larson is an MLSsoccer.com contributor who covers Toronto FC for the Toronto Sun and the Canadian national teams for Postmedia.