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The unrelenting polarization of Jozy Altidore

Written by Will Parchman

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There are no half measures with Jozy Altidore, no half-baked takes still in the process of rendering. He is, by almost any standard definition, the most polarizing first team figure not just in the USMNT, but perhaps in MLS as a heaving whole. At this point, the likelihood of your feelings on Altidore’s utility as a bonafide No. 1 striker being mutable are not great.

Altidore is the climate change of American soccer. It is easy enough to see his effects, and yet the wheel turns about what true cause of those effects are (is the natural course of Giovinco not really the one bringing down this heat?) The mention of his very name, in fact, often raises hackles and frankly somewhat uncomfortable debate.

The fruit pulled up from the diseased soil of the take farm has largely brutalized Altidore since his erstwhile stint at Sunderland went so violently awry. The drumbeats in his defense are steadier in number now that he’s among the blue-blooded scorers in MLS, a stream of 36 goals in 72 games since his return, including five in seven playoff games. But as with everything Altidore, there are barbed caveats digging into each notable item about his seeming revival in an attempt to drag them from even shallow heights and back to earth.

He is scoring at a rate commensurate with MLS’s best, you might say. And they will respond yes, but in MLS.

He was a colossus at AZ Alkmaar, the return fire might contend. Ah, you hear, but in a league that does not defend and sandwiched between failed experiments in Spain and England.

He holds several USMNT scoring records, you gasp as you claw for purchase on a shrinking shore, and he has scored more than all but two Americans in history. The retort is blunt: And how many in World Cup years? How many in the World Cup?

There is not, and perhaps will never be, an end to this sort of wearying circular argument, or at least not without the benefit of several goals of undeniably enormous consequence. Both sides, in their way, are unassailable on key points. Altidore is by any measure a physical force of nature with a sharp scoring record, a successful moment in Europe (defense in the Eredivisie is not so shambolic as they say, really), and more than a few key goals for the national team. But he also cratered at Sunderland in a string of games still hard to truly defend on any level, has not yet scored in a World Cup and has, it should be said, scored a lot of goals against a lot of minnows.

If the rise of brutalist, amorally-tinged media like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones has prepared our society for anything, it should be the ability to sift out these sorts of absolutes and see the world for the overbearing and somewhat terrifying gray gradient it is. Altidore is fully in neither of those arguments, and I would hope they end up in a fiery dumpster alongside every Next Messi ever conjured.

In one sense, I think a clutch of well-meaning fans mistook lack of production, or at least some measure of it, with a bitterly timed injury history and circumstance. Until Altidore’s goal in a 2-0 win over Costa Rica in the Gold Cup semifinals last week, he hadn’t scored in a major international tournament in six years. He scored twice in the group stage of the 2011 Gold Cup, including a rattling howitzer that remains one of the most hard-hit balls I’ve ever seen in a bizarre 1-0 win over Guadeloupe, and then left the tournament with a hamstring injury. That warhead was the last tourney goal Altidore scored until Saturday.

Altidore was purposely left off Jurgen Klinsmann’s 2013 Gold Cup team while he negotiated the early stages of his Sunderland transfer. He famously pulled up lame in the opening moments of the 2014 World Cup, again yanking his hamstring out of alignment and missing the entirety of the tournament. He only played 104 minutes in a truncated appearance at the 2015 Gold Cup, and he was sent home as part of the post-group roster shift because he hadn’t fully recovered from an injury he suffered with TFC earlier in the year. And until Saturday, he’d gone the entire calendar year of 2017 without scoring in a USMNT kit.

Between Altidore’s total minutes tally at the World Cup (380), Gold Cup through Costa Rica 2017 (511) and Confederations Cup (353), Altidore has four tournament goals in 1,244 minutes. That’s a goal roughly every 3 1/2 games. That isn’t embarrassingly bad, but it isn’t good either, especially not when matches carry so much immediate weight as they do in short-span tournaments.

And yet it’s only 1,244 minutes. In 10 years, a goodly portion of which was played at something considerably less than 100 percent. Any statistician worth his weight in numerical probability would tell you that basing an argument from and leaning on a minutes-played number roughly half the number a healthy starter can expect to accrue in a single club season is dubious at best and disingenuous at worst.

Ah, but our one most strident of Altidore critics contends, strikers are expected to score regardless of the circumstance. Is not a goal every 311 minutes in the crucible of competition a singular demerit against his capabilities? When are we to trust him if not then?

And on it goes forever and ever into the expanding sun.

Altidore’s overall scoring record for country is not assailable, or at least not in any way that bears public attention. Our devil-may-care interlocutor so obsessed with Altidore’s fall can argue that Gold Cup goals against Guadeloupe and pre-Hex World Cup qualifying goals against Antigua and Barbuda count for half those scored in the World Cup. To that I don’t know what to say, other than that you may look again at that Guadeloupe goal and see for yourself. It remains all too easy to rip down goals scored against lesser teams until no one is scoring them. And we are not so far removed from those games now, if we ever truly will be.

The actual number of goals Altidore scores for country, and when he scores them, will perhaps never be enough to sway an argument. At least not on their own. And the same goes for club, since he is now ensconced in a league all too easy for his critics to simply set alight and ignore. This, too, is too binary a reading, provides too little nuance and oxygen to kindling Altidore himself has fostered from embers to flame.

What I mean by this is that Altidore, whatever Klinsmann believes in his core, has used MLS to make himself objectively better across the board.

This is not possible, our critic suggests. And our critic is, in this anyway, an utter moron.

Altidore’s stint with Sunderland was so disastrous in part because Sunderland was so disastrous. The team was caught between the tactically putrid Paolo Di Canio era and his successors, and all the while Altidore had no creative influencer behind him. He had his own individual struggles adapting, but he was not helped by the movement at his back. At that point in his career, Altidore needed that sort of fluidity to guiderail his movement. To put it as plainly as possible, Altidore so rarely ran himself open. He needed a lot of help to do that.

This is perhaps where Altidore’s time in MLS helped teach him another way. Or ways, plural.

This was Altidore’s first goal for TFC in 2015, and it was precisely the sort of path he was so used to walking. This is a nice little run of Altidore’s, of course, but the heavy lifting was already done. Giovinco’s run is perfect, and when he sucks the defender in it’s all Altidore has to do but step into the space and finish. This isn’t easy on Altidore’s part, but ask any striker and this is considered bread and butter.

This is Altidore as we had always known him, or at least the best version of his previous self. When he did not have this spiraling creator at his back, as he often did not, he almost seemed aloof, diffident, disinterested.

This is the difference after two years at TFC.

And this.

And this

What I want you to see in these – I could continue – is not necessarily anything unusual historically for strikers, but unusual for Altidore.

There are three things here. In the first video, a first touch that’d make Michelangelo weep; in the second video, a complete awareness of cloistered space; in the third video, a tactical awareness for what’s happening 30 yards behind him and an ability to use it to get in behind.

These three clips are all important because they illuminate forks in the road he had always been reticent to take. His first touch, let alone his first touch in areas on the break like that, routinely let him down. He too often wandered nomadically from the defensive line, to the point that he was often nowhere near a back shoulder when the play broke like a wave across the back. And he was too often disconnected mentally from the action outside his immediate sphere of influence.

Altidore, like every player, had (and has) his faults, but these were the most glaring. And whatever our disembodied critic would say about MLS as an agent of change, it’s clear to anyone who’s watched Altidore on a consistent basis these last two years that he has finally caught up on the minute details of the game that once eluded him. He learned. He improved. He is better; movement, awareness of game states, a propensity to avoid wandering. All these things have turned in his favor since 2015.

This is the Altidore Bruce Arena unleashed on the Gold Cup, and if he will continue his form it is the same man who will be the No. 1 at the World Cup next year. And yet still, here we are, from 1,300 respondents.

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I don’t know that we will ever find our way out of this thicket, or whether Altidore will provide us with a black and white answer either way. The coming 12 months will probably be the tipping point one direction or the other for most. For now, my hope is that we are merely content to live in the gray and walk from the argument acknowledging that there had been neither a winner or a loser.

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