It has been a turbulent season for Jozy Altidore.
Since he returned to MLS after a frustrating spell with Sunderland in England (Jan. 16), he's had to deal with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss multiple starts for Toronto FC (May 16). Then, there was a surprise mid-tournament cut from the 2015 US Gold Cup team (July 14), and uncharacteristic red cards for both the US national team (March 31) and Toronto FC (Aug. 1).
The series of events has observers wondering if all is truly well with the 25-year-old striker.
Even TFC manager Greg Vanney admitted noticing some frustration that crept into the forward's game after he received a red card for kicking out at a defender in a match against the New England Revolution.
"For me it was out of character,” Vanney told the media post-game. “He's harboring some frustration for a number of different things over the past month, month and a half, between the national team and injury and whatnot. I think it kind of emerged in one moment there."
It all began well, with an opening day brace in Vancouver (Mar. 7) and another just four games later in his home state of Florida against Orlando City SC (Apr. 26). But then on May 16, an extra stretch on the artificial turf in New England heralded a turning point.
A hamstring strain suffered against the Revolution on that day forced Altidore out of the match after just 21 minutes, and he’d have to wait another four matches before his next MLS start.
It was also a race against time for Altidore to get fit for the CONCACAF Gold Cup, and although he ultimately made the US squad, two lackluster and goalless group-stage appearances led to manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to exclude him from the knockout stage due to fitness concerns.
The apparent snub was not unexpected. “I'm not really surprised,” Altidore said last month. “I wasn't where I needed to be. The window was too small. I'm not Megaman.”
While everyone else questioned his fitness, Toronto FC stood by their star forward and Vanney was determined to get him into top shape by giving him minutes. Just 11 days after his Gold Cup snub, Altidore stepped up to seal a stirring comeback from a 3-0 deficit with a last-minute penalty equalizer in Columbus.
But just seven days later, Altidore went from hero to goat. Sporting the captain's armband for a crucial Eastern Conference encounter against the Revolution, he was sent off after only 39 minutes for a retaliatory kick on defender Jose Goncalves, all but dooming his side to the 3-1 defeat.
Although the red cards and the multi-game dry spells have made headlines, Altidore’s MLS production has not been insignificant – his seven goals in 14 starts amount to a goal every other start.
Still, Altidore knows he can improve. “At the end of the day I expect a lot out of myself,” he said on Tuesday. "I know that there is more for me to give.”
For Vanney, a portion of that responsibility also lies with the team, which he feels still needs time to jell after the international absences and new acquisitions this summer.
“Jozy needs to be more involved. Some of that was us, some of that is Jozy,” Vanney admitted Tuesday. "He’s a key player for us. We need to get him into good spots, in and around the goal. We need to find him with good balls, so he can [hold up play for us].... We need to get him in front of goal.”
If they can manage to do that and get Altidore firing again, it would come at a crucial time on the schedule with a first-ever playoff berth glittering in the horizon. The stretch run begins with a Saturday match in New York against the Red Bulls (7 pm ET, TSN2), which will see Altidore return to the place where he began his MLS career in 2006.
"We need to get him going,” Vanney said. “And my hope is that this weekend, going to his former club, in a big match against a rival in our conference, is that he'll be highly motivated and we can support him and get him those opportunities.”
“That's the job [of a striker]. It's great to score goals,” Altidore said, "and Saturday is a perfect chance for that.”