Analysis

It's not hard to understand the importance of Jozy Altidore

Strikers are always expected to score, but as Paul Tenorio notes, goals shouldn't be the only standard we use to evaluate Jozy Altidore.

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Six months before the two United States internationals became teammates in Toronto, U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley locked eyes with a reporter in the tunnel at EverBank Field in Jacksonville.

The United States men were just days away from the start of the 2014 World Cup, and Jozy Altidore had just scored a pair of impressive goals in a send-off win over Nigeria. Bradley was asked whether the goals might help quell the criticism of Altidore, who had been in a scoring rut.

Trust me, as a player, as somebody who has been on the field with him on a lot of days, in a lot of big games, this is a guy who you want on your team. Every single time.

- Michael Bradley, on Jozy Alttidore

Bradley, who shares many of the same mannerisms of his father, former U.S. coach Bob Bradley, spoke slowly and deliberately.

“Jozy is such a good player, he means so much to our team, and so on a personal level it's great for him to get some goals," Bradley said. "But the reality is that anybody who ever questions Jozy, or anybody who ever doesn't see what he brings to our team, doesn't understand soccer. I'll tell you guys that right now: This guy does so much. At such a young age he's given our team so much on so many big days.

"You can't help but laugh when now he goes through a few games and he doesn't get a goal or two and people start to look and want to throw all the rest out the window. Trust me, as a player, as somebody who has been on the field with him on a lot of days, in a lot of big games, this is a guy who you want on your team. Every single time."

Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Goals, or lack of goals, always overshadow Altidore's work without the ball. (Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports)

Flash forward just about two years and Bradley could have found himself repeating the same lines, only this time to a local and national press ready to call it quits on Altidore as a star striker. The 26-year-old had yet to score in the MLS season, and another hamstring injury sidelined him. Despite his obvious influence on the game in other areas, people questioned whether Altidore was overpaid and whether he should be considered a bust.

Those questions were, in some ways, fair.

Strikers will always be judged on the number of goals they put into the net. But the demeanor of Altidore’s teammates – whether it was Bradley in 2014 or Sebastian Giovinco doing his damnedest to get Altidore a goal – was as strong a sign as any what Altidore means to the success of Toronto FC, when he’s scoring and when he isn’t.

Altidore has a presence at target striker that is perhaps unmatched in MLS. His strength at holding up the ball, his movement and his defensive work rate all rank among the best when it comes to forwards in the league. The attention he commands opens things up for Giovinco, inarguably the best player in MLS. Altidore’s presence also has a trickle-down effect, with weapons like Jordan Hamilton or Tosaint Ricketts now available off the bench.

These are things that matter less to the average observer, however.

“Yeah I think people tend to overlook it, but that’s sports,” Altidore told the media in Toronto this week. “That’s life. As professionals you have to go about your business and keep doing your job.”

Things have changed in recent weeks, at least in front of net. Since returning from injury, Altidore has been particularly sharp. He has three goals and an assist in his last four games over a combined 168 minutes. In short, he’s looking more like the complete striker that racked up goals in Holland.

That Altidore has always been this type of player is perhaps the frustrating part. When he’s healthy and can find a rhythm, Altidore has always been the best forward in the U.S. pool. The problem has been the consistency. Altidore’s goals in back-to-back games is just the second time he’s accomplished that feat since returning to MLS, for example, and his 16 goals in 38 games falls short of other elite strikers in the league.

His form around the net distracts from his impact on other areas of the game.

If Altidore continues to build on his current scoring rate, however, it could turn TFC from just another contender into the favorite in the Eastern Conference. It could finally lead to the end of questions about confidence, a word Altidore has come to hate after being asked so many times about it.

“I believe in my ability, I don’t think there are any issues there,” Altidore said this week.

It will be tested in a massive showdown with the Philadelphia Union on Saturday night. The Union, buoyed by the addition of U.S. national team midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, is coming off of one of its strongest performances of the season. A win could potentially put TFC in first place in the East, depending on NYCFC’s result against the LA Galaxy.

If Altidore can maintain this scoring momentum, the rest of the league will be on alert, because while what Bradley said two years ago is true, that Altidore means too much to his team for goals to solely define his impact, the oft-debated striker can be an absolute game-changer when he’s scoring goals.

You don’t need to understand soccer to comprehend that.

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Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @PaulTenorio.