Not that he did enough to merit rave reviews. The Danes were rugged and composed defensively aside from the two incisive serving balls that produced the goals, and when Altidore did knock a ball towards a teammate or into a good spot they often got there first. He wasn’t especially good but compared to the lackluster bunch accompanying him, he held up his end.
Now that Landon Donovan (“Landycakes” to his detractors) has retired, Altidore -- along with Michael Bradley -- has taken the mantle of USA scapegoat. If Altidore doesn’t play well and the USA loses, he’s the reason. If he plays well, regardless of result, he didn’t do enough. He will never be a dynamic game-breaker in the mold of Donovan or Clint Dempsey, who missed the game because of a hamstring strain.
He’s also not the equal of Danish striker Nicklas Bendtner, who scored all three of his country’s goals in its 3-2 comeback win. Yet the Danes also have Christian Eriksen, who unlike Dempsey, still plays for Spurs. Denmark unleashed several players quick and dangerous on the flanks, an area seldom utilized by the Americans.
Jozy critics cite these perceived shortcomings: slow, lazy, clumsy, predictable. He’s Dozy Jozy to many Sunderland fans after they watched him score just three goals in 52 appearances during an 18-month stay that ended with a move to Toronto FC in January.
Altidore has already matched that total this month. He netted twice in TFC’s opening-day win, a 3-1 victory in Vancouver prior to tallying against the Danes. Three goals in his last six U.S. games hasn’t quieted the critics, and for many of them, probably nothing he does – such as scoring in five straight games in 2013 – will suffice.
That’s the life of a striker, especially one not speedy enough to blow by defenders and tuck away shots from tight angles (Bradley Wright-Phillips), or wily enough to spot and exploit the tiniest opening (Marco di Vaio). Against the Danes, while supposedly paired with Aron Johannsson in a 4-4-2 formation, Altidore labored through a stretch of nearly 34 minutes without receiving a pass in the attacking half, yet it wasn’t for lack of movement nor effort.
He and Johannsson seldom connected, though a check of Altidore’s heat map and passing diagram show him working both flanks as well as the middle, and dropping occasionally behind the midfield line yet with plenty of presence in the attacking third. A telling moment surfaced in Wednesday’s game. Altidore, near the midfield line, escaped his markers and checked back to knock a ball into space, albeit a large space and one left open when none of his teammates moved to claim the ball. So he retrieved it himself, about 70 yards from the Danish goal, and passed it to a teammate.
Altidore suffered five fouls and committed three, a stat line of at least moderate activity. He isn’t fleet of foot and never will be, but too often his dearth of blazing speed is mistaken for sloth. He was fast enough to chase down Tim Chandler’s long ball and evade two defenders to thump it into the net, and he glided behind the Danish back line to turn a Bradley chip into the middle for Johannsson to finish.
A lot of his work off the ball didn’t draw notice because of the ineptitude around him. He contributed a fair share of that himself, but as the goal and assist demonstrated, he worked enough to be in the right spots when a wheezing attack generated those rare situations. Chasing that ball down from Chandler on the left side and smacking it out of the air is a top-class play on any day.
“It was a great ball from Timmy,” said Altidore.” It looked like the defenders were confused a little bit, and I just tried to kind of stay with the play. Then, I tried to hit it first time and get it on target and it went in.”
The key phrase is “stay with the play.” Nearly 20 minutes into the game, the Americans were floundering, yet Altidore’s perseverance and boldness turned a hopeful hoof into a goal, and a superb goal at that. Perhaps not quite as spectacular as Bendtner’s arrowed winner, but a commendable blend of inspiration and execution, as was his touch to Johannsson for the second goal.
Surely the hounds of hate would have descended had his spurning of a chance not led to a goal. As it turns out, one doesn’t have to search very hard for comments from those who contend that in both cases he was “lucky” to a) hit the first one inside the post via a slight deflection and b) forego a chance to play a pass that was converted. Whatever.
Most observers concur the move from Dutch club AZ, for which he scored 39 goals in 67 appearances, to Sunderland blew up in his face. (So did the decision of MLS to sell him for $10 million at age 18 to Spanish club Villarreal, but business is business.) The Black Cats didn’t bolster the rest of the squad and couldn’t find the right solution for a manager either. Signed during the reign of the combustible Paolo Di Canio, Altidore saw out his tenure, as well as that of interim manager Kevin Ball. The eventual “long-term” replacement, Gus Poyet, lasted about as long as Altidore in a shifted time frame. Hired in October 2013, Poyet got the sack last week.
Optimists believe Altidore's best has yet to be seen, and at 25, regular playing time and consistent scoring for TFC will boost his confidence and hence production for the USA. Cynics are sure the lowered demands of MLS will numb his motivation and sharpness. In modern parlance, if you stick up for Jozy you’re a fan-boy; his detractors are haters.
The reality is that until someone else of size and power and at least a semblance of goalscoring acumen – whatever happened to Terrence Boyd, anyway? – supplants him, Altidore is in the picture. Get used to it.