The Twitter handle above is for my general news reporting. My soccer handle is @thegoalkeeper. Contact me there
NEW YORK - When a striker scores 15 goals in a 20-game stretch, the odds are pretty good that he'll be accused of being in good form.
When that player is at the top of the U.S. national team depth chart, and plays a big role in helping his club reach the Eastern Conference final for the first time ever, the odds are pretty good that he'll be accused by many people.
That player, as you've probably figured out by now, is Jozy Altidore. The aforementioned 20-game stretch dates back to July 31. It includes two goals in the Americans' last World Cup qualifier, and a goal each in all three of Toronto FC's playoff games this autumn.
Altidore's run has impressed a lot of people, as it should. But the Reds' locker room hasn't been all that moved, at least publicly.
Even after Sunday's bewildering 5-0 demolition of New York City FC on Sunday at Yankee Stadium - part of a 7-0 aggregate thumping over two games - the team was noticeably low-key.
Perhaps that's because within Toronto's locker room, there's a keen awareness of how much scrutiny Altidore has been under throughout his career. Not just in Toronto, a big city with a big-spending soccer team that took 10 years to win a playoff game. It's been this way for Altidore at every other stop in his club career - to say nothing of the national team.
Yes, it would be much more impressive if the 27-year-old was scoring goals in bunches for Sunderland, Hull City, Bursaspor or Villarreal. Heck, if Altidore was scoring goals for any European team he'd be praised to the heavens by those who preach the gospel of the Old Continent's inherent moral superiority.
But this much is certain: Regardless of what you think of the level of opponent, Altidore has been putting the ball in the net on a consistent basis for the last three months. And a fair few of those goals have been consequential in the moment.
For all the ups and downs Altidore has endured - including more than his fair share of untimely injuries - is it not at least fair to give him that?
The hundreds of TFC fans who traveled to the Bronx Sunday certainly did, serenading the New Jersey native with a rousing rendition of "Happy Birthday" during pregame warmups. Altidore celebrated the occasion with an assist on the night's opener and this thunderbolt of a finish later:
Soon after the final whistle, Altidore left the stadium for some more traditional celebrating. It's too bad he wasn't around to reflect on his big night, but call it an excused absence.
It was left to others to speak on his behalf, starting with Reds head coach Greg Vanney.
"He doesn't really deserve scrutiny," Vanney said. "He's a player who had some issues in terms of injury [and] sometimes those aren't the player's fault. He's worked incredibly hard to get healthy, to find his form, and you can see what he's capable of doing - which is something we always knew he was going to be capable of doing."
Implicit in Vanney's words was the understanding that Altidore hasn't always done it. Indeed, the droughts have been so glaring at times that they've overshadowed the periods of success. And to make matters worse, the droughts have come on some of the biggest stages Altidore has played on.
Go back to those four European clubs I mentioned above. Altidore played a total of 116 combined games for them, and scored a total of nine goals. His struggles were laid bare for the world to see, especially during his two stays in England.
He has had similarly fallow stretches with the national team, such as a stretch from 2010 to 2012 when he scored just five times in 29 appearances.
But when things go right, they go right in a big way. Such as Altidore's two seasons at Dutch club AZ Alkmaar from 2011 to 2013, when he scored 51 goals in 93 games. That form translated to the national team, as he scored eight goals in 14 appearances in the 2013 calendar year.
That stretch is one of the biggest reasons why Michael Bradley politely took exception to my asking him Sunday night how important Altidore's current hot streak is.
"I'm going to give you a little bit of a hard time and say that he's scored a lot of big goals in a lot of big games going back a long time," Bradley said. "When people try to act like Jozy became a good player in the last two months - and I'm not saying that's what you were implying - but in general, the narrative is, in my opinion, not quite accurate."
At the peak of his success at AZ, Altidore got a second chance at the English Premier League with a $13 million move to Sunderland. He failed there, scoring just three goals in 52 appearances in a year and a half or so, came after that.
Then came the move to Toronto, where Altidore has had a renaiss-
... well, maybe that's not the right word.
Where Altidore rediscovered his fo-
... No, it's not that either.
Where he took multiple steps down in quality to a league that will never be as good as the English Premier League, so of course it's not surprising that he has scored 40 goals in 52 games.
Okay, look. I agree that MLS isn't as good a league as the EPL. So do most of the media that cover the league, most of the fans that follow it, and heck, most of the people who work for it.
Read that again. I'll even print it in big type for you.
Are you happy now?
I hope so, because here's the point I really want to make:
It matters when a player is playing with confidence. It especially matters when a striker is playing with confidence. And it matters even more when that striker has Altidore's natural physical gifts that complement his soccer skills.
It matters most of all when all of those things have come together in the lead-up to the U.S. national team's biggest game of every World Cup qualifying cycle: at home against Mexico in Columbus on Friday (8 p.m., Fox Sports 1 and Univision). Four days later, the Americans are at Costa Rica (9 p.m., beIN Sports and NBC Universo), the only major CONCACAF nation where they've never won.
"Jozy going into the national team full of confidence, and - with Michael, who has also been spectacular in the last couple of games - I think the form speaks for itself," said Vanney, who earned 37 national team caps of his own in a decade-long playing career. "To have each other, and the natural connection they've had playing together for years, and the way they're able to find each other and work together - whenever you put a team together on short notice, you want guys who already have relationships on the field, because it makes putting things together quickly easy. And you want guys who are in form. That's what they're going to be in when they show up for Jurgen [Klinsmann]."
When attention shifts back to the club scene, Toronto will face up to Montreal in what should be an epic Eastern Conference final series against the arch-rival Impact. The first leg will be at Olympic Stadium on Nov. 22, where a crowd of over 40,000 is likely to be on hand. The second leg will be at BMO Field, which will be jammed to the last inch of its 30,000 capacity.
If ever there was a time for Altidore to be at his best, it's right now. And by the way, Vanney was right about Bradley's strong performances in the NYCFC series.
"We're very excited," Bradley said. "You guys probably get sick and tired of hearing me say it, but this is what it's all about: to play in big games, to play in games where everything's on the line and where everybody's watching... You play all year to get to this point, and we have a group of guys who have embraced the challenge in every way. I couldn't be more proud."
Bradley carries his own burden of struggles in big games, most notably during the Copa América Centenario. The current spotlight gives him his own chance to bury a few of those old demons.