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Jozy Altidore's silence speaks volumes

FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama.
FOX Soccer News: Review of USA's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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Jozy Altidore isn’t talking right now. But then the things he’s saying are speaking volumes.

Since coming into United States men’s national team camp in late May on the back of a breakout season in the Netherlands – scoring 31 goals in all competitions with Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar, a new American overseas single-season scoring record – Altidore hasn’t talked to the media directly. He wanted to focus on his football this summer.

And call it causal or call it coincidental, but following an 18-month-and-change scoring drought for the USA, Altidore has scored the opening goal in each of their last three games – all of them wins.

On Tuesday night in Seattle, in the United States’ thoroughly deserved 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Panama, which put them in first place in the CONCACAF region, Altidore got himself on the end of a low, sharp cross to the far post from winger Fabian Johnson in the 36th minute. It was a striker’s goal, one born of cunning positioning and savvy timing, leaving him with little to do but poke the ball into the empty net from close range.

“It’s just great team football and we haven’t been playing this well for a while,” Altidore said through the rare recorded statement after the match. “When we’re playing this well, whoever is playing forward is going to have success and fortunately that’s me.”

Altidore never said much of consequence to begin with, careful with words and image as he always was. But there is a fundamental truth to what little he did say, indirectly, following the game.

His goals are as much the product of improved service from his teammates as they are of his own form. Because lengthy though his scoring drought may have been, Altidore had been playing well for the Americans for some time now.

Since he joined AZ in the summer of 2011, after bouncing around Europe for three years, manager Gertjan Verbeek – the very man who nurtured Roma midfielder Michael Bradley at a crucial stage of his career at SC Heerenveen – has retooled the 23-year-old Altidore into the target man his physical attributes always suggested he should become.

“He learns to use his body as well,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann on Tuesday. “He’s such a physical presence and sometimes he doesn’t use it. I think he’s just now starting to use it, to shield the ball, to do a lot of work for us.”

Learning to move laterally, hold up play and make runs at crosses, rather than running off the defender’s shoulder and taking opponents on one-on-one, Altidore has become the offensive anchor the United States often lacked. No matter how overmatched the Americans are, they can count on the Haitian-American striker to provide an outlet option and nurse the ball until teammates join him in the attack.

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His utility extends far beyond scoring goals. “I always said that if he does the work, if he does the runs, if he makes space for Clint [Dempsey], if at the end of the day there’s a positive result it’s absolutely no problem at all if he doesn’t end up scoring a goal,” Klinsmann said following the June 2 4-3 friendly win over Germany, wherein Altidore ended his scoreless streak.

Certainly, goals matter in a sport where the outcome is measured by them – to state the very obvious. But Altidore’s growth as a player, his usefulness as a target man, far eclipsed his failure to connect twine with leather – or space-age plastic.

“I’m happy for Jozy because I know how forwards think, I know these guys live for goals,” said Bradley following the win over Panama. “But he’s such an important guy for our team, even on the nights when he doesn’t score. His contribution, his commitment, his ability to fight and battle and be physical and then also give us a guy up there who technically is so good and so dangerous, he makes such a difference for us.”

The goals, then, are a nice add-on from what Altidore contributes on a regular basis. And those contributions have tracked a noticeably upward slope ever since Klinsmann briefly ousted him from the side in October, citing a lack of performance in game play and practice and “certain things that went on.”

Klinsmann, as ever, was sending a message. “He knows that he has our full support in his development,” the German coach said on Tuesday of nurturing the precocious talent. “We talk often about Jozy and forget how young he still is. You’ve gotta give him a bad game or a bad performance as well, but you also here and there are going to kick him a little bit in his backside when you think he needs it.”

Since earning his way back into the team, Altidore, who had been a regular pretty much continuously from the time he was 18 up until that point, has been invaluable. “What we demand from him is that when he struggles that you fight your way back into the game and do your job for the team,” said Klinsmann. “And how he’s doing that for the last couple of games is absolutely outstanding.”

Now that Altidore has started to combine the effort with the output, the United States has, as defender Brad Evans put it, an “absolute beast” at its disposal.

One who, at just 23, has a solid decade of football ahead of him.

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