HANOVER, N.J. — He was selected 17th overall in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft by the then-MetroStars. As a 16-year-old Jozy Altidore made his professional debut and was a hero to many of the fans who now love to hate him and will vociferously boo the 29-year-old when Toronto FC take on the New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on Saturday.
Altidore has played up the villain role, which boiled over during the 2017 MLS Cup playoffs when he and former Red Bulls captain Sacha Kljestan were sent off for a halftime tunnel tussle at BMO Field.
Slowed by injuries and haunted by the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Altidore has been written off by many fans.
In a league that celebrates the newest attacking talent like Brian Fernandez of the Portland Timbers and Gustavo Bou of the New England Revolution, even the emergence of established superstars like the LA Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela from LAFC, Altidore is sometimes forgotten.
But not by Red Bulls coach Chris Armas.
“I think the thing I like most about Jozy is that I think he’s a winner,” Armas said. “He’s a winner [and because of that] there’s so many other things that take care of itself. Because he’s not just a guy that can score inside the box, he’s not just a guy that is powerful, he’s got a mentality that comes with it.”
When healthy and in-form, which hasn’t often been the case, Altidore is still among the most dangerous forwards in MLS.
After scoring double-digit goals in his first three years with Toronto, scoring the decisive goal in the 2017 MLS Cup final, Altidore has nine goals in 13 appearances this season, including nine starts. He’s scored in four consecutive games, including an audacious backheel in a 3-1 win over the Red Bulls at BMO Field July 13.
Best angle of JOZY ALTIDORE backheel goal.
Audacious. Sublime. Incredible. Beautiful.
— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) July 18, 2019
Defending him tightly in that situation was Tim Parker.
“He’s willing to try those kind of things. I think that’s brave,” Parker said. “For him those things pay off from time to time. It’s one of those things that you try to be in the right spot. And when he pulls something like that off, it’s tough to deal with, but maybe you can do something better the next time.”
Aaron Long has a slightly different perspective of Altidore — who is the highest scoring American player in the league this year with his nine goals — after the two were teammates on the USMNT that lost to Mexico in the Concacaf Gold Cup final last month.
“I don’t know about learn anything different. But you learn to respect him a little bit more as a player, seeing him day in, day out,” Long said. “He’s not just big and strong and can score goals. He’s got soft feet and he’s a clinical finisher, which we already knew.”
Altidore has matched his games played and eclipsed his scoring totals and minutes played from an injury-plagued 2018. After forming one of the best partnerships in MLS with Sebastian Giovinco — who now plays in Saudi Arabia — Altidore hasn’t missed a step with Alejandro Pozuelo, signed to fill the Atomic Ant’s void.
That, too, doesn’t surprise Armas.
“He likes to be in the big moments, and he can execute in tough moments, he’s also a good passer of the ball. And his timing of when and where he shows up is clever,” Armas said. “He’s fun to watch. It’s always a challenge playing against him for our guys and we love that he’s on our national team, and not someone else’s.”