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In Search of 9: Jozy Altidore and the American forward

FC Dallas v Toronto FC Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Ah, here we are again. Another Jozy Altidore comeback. It seems like he’s had more of these than Bruce Willis at this point, right? Remember that 30 goal season with AZ Alkmaar after not being able to match the level in Spain? Or the hat trick in Bosnia after a poor start with Sunderland? Or the brace against Nigeria a few weeks before the World Cup? Or the...

You get my point. The U.S.’s best forwards over the past decade have had a tendency to run hot and cold, and Jozy might be the streakiest of the bunch. After Brian McBride abdicated his role as leading #9 in 2006, the men at the top of the food chain (Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, and Jozy Altidore) have been brilliant and ineffective in turns, supplemented by a host of prospects and journeymen up top. Ironically, those three are probably the three best forwards the U.S. has ever had. Statistically that’s about as true a statement as one can make: they are 1, 2, and 3 in goals (Altidore is tied with Eric Wynalda, but it’s hard to imagine him not breaking that deadlock). Donovan is first in assists as well (58), while Dempsey is fifth (17) , and Altidore winds up a bit further down, tied for eighteenth (8). Those are pretty impressive numbers for people who it seems some faction of U.S. fans have called to lose their spots on the team, repeatedly, at one point or another.

After his latest injury set-back, one that kept him from participating in the Copa America (the third tournament he’s either missed or had cut short due to injury in as many years), Jozy saw the field once again for Toronto FC, and found goal again, too. Everything’s peachy, right?

Not exactly. Clint Dempsey proved once again that he’s still kicking this summer, Bobby Wood continued to prove he can step up his game when called upon, and even Gyasi Zardes showed flashes of improvement. When he’s been healthy, Jozy has been the point of the U.S. attack for a good five years at least (and an argument could be made it’s been longer than that, too). But where is Jozy’s spot in the team right now, at this instant, with the current pool of players at Klinsmann’s disposal?

Jozy is not the most skilled player in the U.S. striker pool. That would most likely be Dempsey. He’s not the fastest, as Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris would most likely outstrip him in most short sprints. He’s not the best finisher, either, with head or foot. But the reason Jozy Altidore is valuable, and the reason he’s going to walk back into Jurgen Klinsmann’s starting lineup barring some disastrous run of form, is because he’s pretty good at all of those things, despite not being the best, and all of those skills are wrapped up in an impossibly strong frame in tandem with a very good read of the game with his back to goal. Jozy is a starter for the U.S. because of things like this:

It’s not the fact that Jozy back-heeled a pass. It’s the fact that defenders have to simultaneously respect his quickness and his strength by recognizing they can’t just body him and expect to push him off the ball. Jozy has a not-short career of rolling defenders doing just that, most famously and brazenly at the age of 20 against a certain Spanish team on his way to goal. He might not be the best at any one skill in the U.S. striker pool, but his adeptness at all of them combined with his physical tools coalesce into a package that is very, very hard to keep off the field.

Now, this is not an Altidore love-fest, and I don’t intend to ignore Jozy’s flaws, either. He is incredibly streaky, much more so than the only two people in front of him on the U.S.’s all-time goals list. He just goes weeks (months! Over a year at one point!) flubbing chances and looking lost. He has an incredible propensity to get injured. He’s been criticized as being mentally weak. I’m not trying to excuse him from these things. His scoring droughts last far too long to be considered a full-proof option much of the time, and the type of toughness and workman-like attitude towards the game (the type of hustle and “grit” we loved so much to see in people like Brian McBride, Clint Mathis, and even Wynalda) just isn’t there with Jozy at times. And, looking for a new, shiny savior as U.S. fans are wont to do, Bobby Wood seems to stand out more and more in those areas these days.

But I also can’t help but feel that, at the ripe old age of 26, Jozy has been written off as a hack because he never became the world-XI player that people thought he could become when he first scored as a teenager against Mexico, or jetted off to Spain for a record fee, or scored 30 goals in the Netherlands. The specter of expectation haunts him in the minds of many. I understand being frustrated with Jozy. I’m frustrated with him a lot of the time. But you don’t get to 34 international goals on 93 caps (which is nearly identical to Landon Donovan’s international goal rate, by the way) by being awful at soccer. And, as it stands, no other forward is such a huge threat to goal on this U.S. team that Altidore becomes surplus to requirements, either. No one else in the pool comes close to his physicality or skill set as of right now, and no one else is chipping in goals at such a rate as to not need a veteran striker in the prime of his career.

I’m sorry that Altidore will never see a Ballon d’Or shortlist, but let’s face some objective reality here. The third-leading scorer in the nation’s history is 26 years old, healthy again, and scoring goals in addition to doing the other things that make him such a valuable asset on the field very well. Yes, Dempsey and Wood played well this summer, and yes, I’d love to see Jordan Morris (or Rubio Rubin, or even Aron Johannsson should he ever get healthy again) crack the U.S. lineup again. But if you thought Jozy was on the outside looking in on this particular striker pool, look a little harder. He’s finding his way back once again.