Jozy Altidore's growing influence on and off the field vital to Toronto's rise
Jozy Altidore has been a major part of Toronto FC's surge into the MLS Eastern Conference final, which kicks off Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) when the Reds travel to Montreal for the first leg against the Impact in front of what is expected to be an overflow crowd at the 61,000-seat Olympic Stadium.
After missing more than two months with the hamstring injury he suffered in May, Altidore returned to Greg Vanney's lineup and scored 10 goals in 14 games down the stretch for the Reds. His presence also ignited fellow forward Sebastian Giovinco, whose own form took off in large part because of the attention opposing defenders were forced to pay Altidore when he was reinserted into TFC's lineup.
But to hear Vanney tell it, Altidore's growing influence in Toronto's dressing room has been as important as his contributions on the field.
"The reason people are seeing him emerge as this leader is he has his house in order now," the Toronto coach told ESPN FC in a phone interview earlier this week. "By that, I mean Jozy's feeling good. In the past, he was dealing with injuries, and it's hard to be outward and lead when you're trying to get healthy."
Altidore joined TFC from Premier League Sunderland in January 2015 as part of a swap deal for fellow forward Jermain Defoe.
But Altidore's first season in Canada's largest city was interrupted by a hamstring issue. In his first two seasons north of the border, he missed 20 games because of injury and U.S. national team duty. Being on the training table, in particular, prevented Altidore from accepting a bigger role sooner, according to Vanney.
"I think maybe we would've seen some of that leadership a little bit earlier," the coach said. "But he's in a place in Toronto now where he trusts us, we trust him, he's playing very well, he's in a good spot from a fitness and health standpoint, and he's got a great personality and big personality that's important in our locker room.
"He's got a big laugh," Vanney added. "He's the guy who can rib Sebastian [Giovinco] a little bit, make him laugh. He can keep guys on their toes with a little bit of joking and keep things relaxed in the right way and help guys enjoy each other."
As a younger player, Altidore was more temperamental. His training habits weren't always the best. But he has matured noticeably as he's gotten older; the New Jersey-born, Florida-raised target man turned 27 earlier this month. But he has also rededicated himself to the game this year, slimming down and changing his diet and sleep habits. There's been an urgency about his game this season, and it's rubbed off on his teammates.
Altidore's more easygoing demeanor has helped offset the approach of the Reds' other two designated players, Giovinco and captain Michael Bradley.
"They work off of each other quite well," Vanney said. "Michael is a guy who is very intense in everything he does. He's got very high standards for himself and others. Jozy has a high standard as well, but Jozy turns on and off the intensity sometimes and brings life to certain situations, and actually, really in the last two, three months, as the team has started to roll a bit, Michael is starting to be a bit lighter. He's bringing out some jokes now. I don't know if it's them rubbing off on each other, but together they do a nice job of balancing each other out.
"And then you have Seba [Giovinco]," Vanney continued. "He has the intensity of Michael sometimes but also the smile and laugh of Jozy. Together, they bring Sebastian along. It's a good mix with these three guys."
The good vibes helped TFC overcome a late-season swoon to become the odds-on favorite to win MLS Cup. A club that had never won a playoff game heading into this postseason will go for a fourth straight victory next week.
It won't be easy, though. Toronto and Montreal split their regular-season series this year, and while the Reds went undefeated against the Impact on the road, winning and tying in two games in Quebec, playing inside the "Big O" is still a definite advantage for the hosts.
As for Altidore, he won't have much time to shake off the disappointment of losing two World Cup qualifying games with the U.S. in the past week.
"It's tough to switch gears, but it's part of being a professional," Altidore said after he, Bradley and the rest of the American side lost 4-0 loss in Costa Rica on Tuesday. "But it's an exciting time to go back to Toronto, and they're counting on us as well."
And TFC will continue relying on Altidore, both off the field and on.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.