Jozy Altidore is no stranger to criticism. No stranger to goal droughts either. And he rode both into one of the biggest games of his life on Friday night in Orlando.
He had not scored in the Hex. Not in six starts. Not in a lone substitute appearance. And heading into a game in which his team absolutely had to do what he had found so difficult, vultures circled. “He’s garbage,” they said. The equivalent of an “automatic L.”
The critics were out in full force. Just as they had been during an ignominious two years at Sunderland, when Altidore scored once in 42 Premier League games. Just as they had been midway through his second MLS season in Toronto, when he was still goalless on the year.
But were you to ask a teammate or manager about his struggles during those droughts, you’d have gotten a surprising response. At Sunderland, manager Gus Poyet constantly hailed his importance. At TFC, even when droughts gave way to hot streaks and reporters wanted to know about Jozy’s scintillating form, Michael Bradley and others would demur. The idea that Altidore was an off-and-on, hot-or-cold player, they’d intimate, was nonsense.
During that barren run in 2016, Bradley explained why: “For anyone who has watched our team and paid attention this season, if you truly understand the game, you’d know Jozy has played a humongous part in our success.”
There is a tendency, and oftentimes a very reasonable one, to tie a striker’s performance to goals and goals only. But Altidore is about more than just scoring them himself. He is a national team regular and a must-start in big games because he is the most well-rounded forward in the U.S. player pool. And he showed precisely why in Friday’s crucial 4-0 thrashing Panama.
But you might not have seen everything else. It’s everything else that Altidore did that made his performance so brilliant.
He sprung Pulisic on a counter in the 11th minute with good movement and a deft touch:
He created a second-half chance for Paul Arriola with a sharp check to the ball and eyes in the back of his head:
Oh, and he enabled Pulisic’s sorcery on the opener:
— go90 Zone (@go90Zone) October 6, 2017
This is who Jozy is. This is what Jozy does. And he did it all game, playing with his back to goal up against a Panamanian center back, or dropping off into midfield, and either pulling a defender with him or playing in the space they conceded to him.
Have a look at the variety of ways in which he helped launch attacks:
(Videos via WatchESPN)
Because of his build – and perhaps because our first lasting memory of him with the national team was his bullying of Joan Capdevila as a 19-year-old in 2009 – Altidore has long been pigeonholed by American soccer fans as a target man. As a muscular, physical No. 9 whose athleticism and strength allow him to lead the line, get in the box, and score goals. The real Jozy doesn’t quite fit that description.
Or at least it’s not the only description he fits. He’s also a support striker in a No. 9’s body. On some occasions, that dichotomy leaves him lost in a game that wants to see him as something he’s not, or when he sees himself as something he’s not. But at other times, it’s a blessing.
Friday was one of those times. Panama couldn’t cope with the variation in his movement. It put a defender on Altidore’s back. If that defender trailed Altidore into midfield – which Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres often did – he left a gaping hole behind him; and when Altidore won balls into his feet or head, Pulisic and others galloped into the vacated space. But if the center back stayed home, Panama’s midfielders had difficulty tracking the extra man in their area.
The Altidore-Wood-Pulisic triangle at the forefront of the U.S.’s attack was brilliant on the night. The three interchanged and connected, so much so that their average positions were almost identical:
— Jason Foster (@JogaBonitoUSA) October 7, 2017
The attacking triangle will not always be as effective as it was Friday. Against many teams, it won’t even be a viable option. Better opponents will pick apart such a stretched and unsupported midfield. And with an extra man beside Bradley, those attacking-third connections will be harder to come by.
But whether it’s one or two up front, Altidore showed Friday why he must play a part – regardless of shape, regardless of partners. Wood was outstanding as well. But it’s the Toronto FC striker who is as good with his back to goal in his defensive half as he is in the box, it’s he who helps unleash Pulisic and others. It’s he who made, and makes, the U.S. attack click.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.