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Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
1:31 | Planet Futbol
Grant Wahl: Toronto FC is my pick to win MLS Cup
Friday November 4th, 2016

There are stretches when your shots go in. And there are stretches when they swerve wide. Sometimes pundits and partisans you can’t control shower you with praise. At other times, it’s criticism or derision. There are well-run clubs. Others are adrift. You can’t do anything about that either. Life off the field impacts performance, for better or worse. And injuries happen—to everyone. The timing isn’t up to you. 

“I don’t know what to tell you. It’s just soccer. Sometimes it goes good. Sometimes it goes bad. There’s no secret as to why things happen,” Jozy Altidore said. “Sometimes the shots fall. Sometimes they don’t.”

Altidore, who turns 27 Sunday, is a talented player and a 10-year pro well versed in those ups and downs. His 2008 transfer from the New York Red Bulls to Villarreal set an MLS standard. He tallied 31 goals in 2012-13 while at AZ Alkmaar, a record for an American abroad. The 31st was the game-winner in the Dutch Cup final. He’s already the third-leading scorer in U.S. national team history, and he’s been praised for his charity work, activism and his dignified response to racist taunting from fans in the Netherlands.

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There also was the brutal dry spell at struggling Sunderland, which plowed through four managers during Altidore’s two seasons. The 2010 head butt at Hull City was his fault. The agonizing hamstring injuries that knocked him out of the 2014 World Cup, the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup and then this summer’s Copa América Centenario—that must have felt like the worst luck imaginable. He’s been judged, frequently, for all that and more, whether it’s his career choices or perceived inability to reach others’ definitions of his potential.

Form and fortune are fluid. They certainly have been for Altidore. But this fall, for the first time in a while, there’s a lot falling into place. His hamstrings are healthy. His MLS club, Toronto FC, is well-built, balanced and drawing big crowds. There are significant games coming up—the sort of “decisive” games for which players yearn, Altidore said.

On Sunday, TFC will attempt to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in its tortured 10-year history. It holds a 2-0 aggregate lead heading into the semifinal second leg at New York City FC. Then, Altidore will meet up with the national team in Columbus, Ohio, where the high-profile World Cup qualifier against Mexico awaits.

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“I’m excited,” he said. “I’m looking forward to them. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be hard, but at the same time, it’s going to be very enjoyable to have those experiences.”

Excitement and enjoyment are enhanced when the shots are going in.

Since returning in late July from the injury that ruled him out of the Copa América, Altidore has 12 goals and four assists. And he has been prolific during TFC’s first genuine playoff run (last year’s embarrassingly quick exit doesn’t count). Against the Philadelphia Union in last week’s winner-take-all knockout game, he set up Sebastian Giovinco’s early opener with a robust run and smart overhead pass, then scored the 85th-minute insurance goal in a 3-1 win. In last Sunday’s first leg versus NYCFC, Altidore turned in an impressive 90-minute effort against an opponent determined to strip the game of any flow, drawing three fouls (and committing four) and scoring the go-ahead goal in the 85th minute.

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He’s done the target man’s dirty work, put his name on the scoresheet and helped his team win two big games. Altidore is playing some of the finest soccer of his career, and his timing, often tragic in the past, now couldn’t be better.

“This is what we always knew he was capable of,” Toronto coach Greg Vanney told reporters last week. “If you try to deal with him physically, he will throw you around like a rag doll. If you try to deal with him in other ways, he can run by you. He has that change of speed. He becomes very difficult to deal with … His mindset has been fantastic. He’s brought a new level of intensity since coming back.”

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press/AP

That strength and speed has been compromised repeatedly by Altidore’s hamstring issues. Last winter, he altered his eating and exercise habits in an effort to drop weight and reduce the likelihood of injury. Yet he was hurt again May.

“At that point I expanded the network in terms of the people I saw. I just went everywhere, to a lot of really good people who gave me a lot of different ideas that a lot of clubs and players should know and they’re not aware of,” he said.

New treatment options were tested and TFC incorporated some of what Altidore learned into his training regimen.

“Sometimes it has really nothing to do with the hamstring. It can occur from something else in the body,” he said. “There’s a lot of different things. It can be from the shoes you wore. There’s a lot of things that play a part that makes sure it’s 100% firing and doing good. It’s a lot more complex than many fans make it out to be … I learned a lot more about myself as a player, about my body and more preventative measures.”

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After a five-month absence, Altidore returned to the national team for September’s qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago. He scored three times. That’s the sort of production that can help put injuries in the past.

“Anybody who deals with a lot of injures, you become mentally injured as well and to try to free yourself and learn how to trust your body, it takes a while,” he said. “So that’s a process as well. There’s a lot that goes into it you don’t see from the outside. It’s never easy dealing with injuries that put you out for a significant amount of time, and kind of make you think twice about doing certain things [on the field.]”

In Clint Dempsey’s absence, Altidore’s experience and presence will be even more vital against Mexico and then again in Costa Rica four days later. His six goals lead all U.S. players this year. But first comes NYCFC and Toronto’s quest to shake the loser label. The club has been overhauled under general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and Vanney, with the acquisitions of Altidore, Michael Bradley and Giovinco buttressed by a renewed commitment to defense and structure. Historically a sieve, TFC yielded only 39 goals in the regular season—a year-over-year improvement of 33% and the best mark in the East. And when the DP trio is humming, Toronto is a legitimate MLS Cup threat.

That opportunity and responsibility aren't things Altidore has enjoyed elsewhere, and he’s found it inspiring. Setting, city and culture matter. Toronto is cosmopolitan, and it’s a great sports town thirsty for winners. The setting at BMO Field last Sunday felt big-time. Bradley has said the club appealed because it was ambitious yet lacked a winning tradition. Building one represented an exciting challenge when he signed in 2014, and Altidore feels likewise. Being relied upon doesn’t have to be a burden. Altidore has found it invigorating.

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“Just every night, coming in and knowing that your team is waiting for you, expecting your best," he said. "Everyone in the locker room is expecting myself, Seba and Michael to try and bring our best. It’s not always easy. But it’s a welcome challenge and I think it’s one that makes players better. We’re not going to get there every night. We’re human. But the hope is to put the team on our backs and kind of steer this thing in a positive direction.”

TFC is on its way. Win or lose Sunday, win or lose MLS Cup on December 10, it’s finally a club with stability and direction that has solved the previously befuddling DP puzzle.

“I think the mentality of the club has changed, and it’s rubbing off on the players and the fans and making it a place that players want to come play,” Altidore said.

He was criticized in some quarters for returning to MLS, but said he feels his game has been enhanced by the experience. Just watch last weekend’s first leg, when he was harassed and harried and found very little room with which to work. But he stuck with it, read the game well in the second half and worked himself into position to net the winner.

“It’s part of growth. It’s part of growing as a player and growing as a team. There are certain things you learn later on in your career. That’s why you play the game so long and push yourself to be better every day. Nobody’s the finished article. For me it’s about improving all the time,” he said.

Time doesn’t always cooperate. There are physical, personal and professional setbacks. But now, at this opportune moment, everything seems to be in harmony. Altidore hopes it lasts through the upcoming qualifiers and on to MLS Cup.

“I think I’ve grown from this whole process and everybody that’s been part of it has grown from it,” he said. “That was the challenge in coming here and it’s exciting. It’s difficult. It’s frustrating at times. But even looking back to where we are now the job is not done. We want to be there on December 10.”

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