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Can Jozy Altidore bounce back in 2021?

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With this season looking to be one of the most pivotal of his career, Jozy Altidore will be looking to shake off last season and once again show why he’s the man.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Toronto FC Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

MANITOBA, Canada—In the celebration of his goal against Columbus SC on Wednesday night, the explosion of joy and cathartic energy erupting from Jozy Altidore was palpable.

Everyone tuned in to the match could see, hell, they could feel what it meant to him to nod home the insurance marker for the Reds against the defending champs.

Right from his introduction into the match, Altidore was set out to destroy the Columbus backline, scything through their lines like a sickle through wheat, and firing a warning shot off of the crossbar that may very well have registered on NATOs radar. His performance in his return to action was impressive and left many wondering: Could Jozy be back?

It’s been a tough go for Altidore in recent times. The U.S. International is coming off of his worst season since his arrival in Toronto in 2015, scoring just twice and assisting once in 14 games, and has had his ability to contribute blighted by injury over the last few seasons. Couple that with the rumours of the striker falling out with club managementagain, and speculation about him leaving the club this past offseason, things haven’t been all too rosy for Jozy.

With the 31-year-old striker set to be looked towards to play a pivotal role for the Reds this season as one of their Designated Players and with seats still very much available on the US Men’s National Team’s plane for the World Cup, there is a lot riding on this season for Altidore.

Recently, former USMNT striker Charlie Davies weighed in on Altitore’s situation and said that it’s time for Jozy to step up and show why he’s still the man.

On a recent episode of Extratime’s Club and Country podcast, Davies kept Jozy in the mix among the top candidates for the USMNT’s no.9 spot for the World Cup. When giving his top-5 strikers in the US’ player pool, Davies kept Jozy in the conversation just outside of his list, albeit with a caveat.

“I have to put an asterisk here: Jozy Altidore. We’ve talked about what he’s done, everything he’s meant to the national team over the past ten years really, but I think you have to light a fire under him and you need to show ‘okay, we’re not just handing out caps just because of what you’ve done and what you could do,’ we need to see what you’re doing now.

“So, staying healthy and then also banging goals left and right. Being the goalscorer that the US Men’s National Team needs him to be and as well as Toronto. If he can do that and play his way back to the national team, which is what you want—you want your starting striker for the US Men’s National Team to be hungry and to show that it means that much to you—if you see that from Jozy, that fire, that intensity, then he goes right up back to No. 1. But, until you see that, until you see that consistent playing time and the health, he’s on the outside looking in and I think that’s exactly how it’s got to be.”

Davies echoed a lot of what TFC fans have been saying over the last year or so. While a fit and healthy Altidore has shown that he will get you goals—let’s not forget that he still ranks second in Toronto’s all-time goalscoring list—the problem is that he has struggled to remain healthy enough to stay on the field to contribute over the past two seasons.

Before his dynamic return to action Wednesday, the 31 year old started the season brightly in the CONCACAF Champions League opener against Club León, getting involved in the play and buying into the press, before frustratingly experiencing a muscle strain in that same match that caused him to miss time again. With nothing certain heading into a World Cup year and with other American strikers like Daryl Dike in such a vein of form that it looks more difficult for him not to score, Davies stressed that time on the pitch is essential for Jozy’s future hopes.

“At this time, we’re talking about the national team, and everybody knows, you’re not getting onto the national team without playing, you have to be playing at your club [number] one, and two, performing and for Jozy Altidore we know his ceiling. That ceiling is you’re scoring 15 goals a year in Major League Soccer at the very least with what you can do, his ability, so until we see that fire and saying ‘you know what, not only am I healthy, but I’m performing, I’m delivering, I’m in form’, that’s when you say ‘it’s undeniable: we gotta start Jozy Altidore’. But, we’re not there yet.”

Despite becoming somewhat of a divisive figure within the TFC support, Altidore has been a consistent contributor for Toronto in his time with the club until these recent injury struggles. Until last season, he had only scored less than 10 league goals once since joining the club—in 2018 when he missed six weeks after having surgery to remove bone fragments from his foot.

We are not all that far removed from Altidore returning from suspension to fire TFC to the MLS Cup final where he would go on to score that goal to put Seattle to the sword and make history, or from him preying on Tigres and Club America the next season. Despite his struggles, TFC’s No. 17 has still scored 75 goals in his TFC career, including 12 in 2019. His form in recent seasons points to a player that still has the ability to perform at a high level.

All that being said, the questions still remain about his fitness. Muscle injuries are not a new phenomenon with the striker, with Altidore missing time throughout his TFC career with various muscle-related injuries. Since signing for the club in 2015, Jozy has had at least nine injuries that could be classified as ‘muscle injuries’ that have ruled him out for over 200 days combined. Whether Altidore was fully recovered from his previous ailment before making his first appearance this season is another question to be asked, and is a situation and a threshold for progress that both the player and the club are going to have to thoroughly sort out moving forward in order to be successful.

Now, this recent injury may not necessarily be down to Jozy’s own injury history or, as Michael Singh pointed out in his article for Waking the Red, muscle injuries are up in the squad in general since Chris Armas took over. TFC’s infirmary was host to ten players as they headed into their first matches of the season, with two more muscle injuries occuring in that match to Altidore and to Erickson Gallardo.

Armas addressed this earlier in the season and attributed this rash of injuries to the stop and start offseason the club experienced and the change in coaching staff, painting the picture that the club was not prepared for the change and was not keeping up with the players’ fitness levels in the lead-up to the season (for a variety of reasons, mainly as a result of the global pandemic.)

Couple this with Armas’ implementation of a high-intensity training (a 25 out of 10 difficulty, according to Michael Bradley) and playing style, and that creates a situation primed for muscle injuries. One would expect these type of injury numbers to drop off as the players’ bodies acclimate to the rigours of their new style of play, Jozy included, so what we have seen so far may not portend imminent disaster for other TFC-contracted hamstrings and quadriceps.

With competition for places up front for TFC only increasing following the arrival of Dom Dwyer and the increasing effectiveness of Ayo Akinola on his own return from injury, Altidore will have to be at his very best to remain in the conversation for starts. Despite the competition, Jozy is still a Designated Player and his health and form could go a long way in determining how far the club can go towards realizing their ambitions this season.

His track record as a marksman will be looked towards by Armas to buoy and boost the attack as times, as Akinola, for all of his goals, ability, and promise, is still a relatively unknown quantity in the grand scheme of things, Dwyer is just returning to match contention after his own journey back from injury and Patrick Mullins is, despite Jeffrey P. Nesker’s propaganda campaign, best suited to being an energetic role player in the squad.

A fit and firing Jozy Altidore instantly makes this TFC squad an even more dangerous prospect as he showed in his effective cameo against Columbus.

In addition to the strikeforce, the arrival of Yeferson Soteldo has already offered the club more dynamism in attack, showing an attacking skillset that will only increase in potency and efficiency when coupled with a fully fit Alejandro Pozuelo. Kristian Jack recently stated on OneSoccer that he believes that this arrival will put good pressure on Altidore to get back to his best.

“I think it puts more pressure on Altidore to succeed because it’s not a No. 9 that’s coming in. I think, by the way, that Altidore will accept that. He’s a man who wants that kind of pressure, he wants to thrive on that. It’s an enormous year for him anyway internally, because obviously he’s had a difficult couple of years health-wise, he wants to get significant minutes. He still believes, as do many, that he can get on that plane to a World Cup and represent the United States national team, some would say he’s one of the best No. 9s available to them right now.

“So, he needs to get fit and healthy and I think that, as I said earlier, there was a clear idea from TFC at some point in their management system to say ‘we wanted to go out and spend this money on this DP spot on a No. 9’. They didn’t do that, a lot of that is down to the fact that Altidore has come back in shape, motivated, behind a new manager and wanting to play and it’s almost given him another lease of life to go out there and play with a top player on the field like Soteldo as well as Pozuelo”.

The stage is certainly set for Altidore to return to being the player we’ve seen in the past and once again be one of TFC’s most impactful players. And with club success and a place at the World Cup on the line, he’ll certainly have the motivation. If all things go to plan, he’ll also have arguably the most talented attacking tandem the club has ever had lining up behind him in Soteldo and Pozuelo to play off of, and he’ll have potential strike partners in Ayo Akinola and Dom Dwyer that can draw the attention of a defence for Jozy to benefit from, so he certainly has the team around him.

If there is anything that even the most fervent Altidore detractors will admit about the striker, it’s that he’s a resillient character. The striker has come back from multiple lows in his career that would have seen off many other professionals.

From the low of his maiden European adventure with Villareal to his scintillating, unstoppable tear through Dutch football with AZ Alkmaar, to once again having to bounce back from a high-profile misadventure with Sunderland only to lead Toronto FC to glory, Jozy doesn’t shy away from a challenge. The fact that he still shows up for USMNT duty after the treatment he received following their World Cup qualification debacle against Trinidad and Tobago shows in itself the kind of character the man has.

Whether we once again see the Altidore of old, or even an evolution of the striker in this new-look team, everything seems to be in place for Jozy to go on and be a success at the club this season. Despite all of that, the dark cloud that is his injury history remains an unshakable, corporeal reality, leaving the question lingering—will he be able to seize the opportunity and make 2021 his year?

Only time will tell in the end, but time has also shown that you can never truly count Jozy Altidore out.