Whatever you do, don't ask Jozy Altidore what it's like to be in the best form of his career.
You see, the Toronto FC striker doesn't consider his current run of outstanding form to be the best of his career. Rather, what he sees now is a return to his best, a return to a level that had eluded him for the past three years due to injuries and diminished confidence. Now healthy and motivated by the frustrations of recent years, Altidore is playing like the unstoppable force that has been the subject of three different eight-figure transfers in his career.
We have seen this Altidore before. In 2013, he was an absolute force for both club and country, scoring 31 goals for Dutch side AZ Alkmaar in the 2012-13 season and a career-high eight goals for the U.S. national team, including a record run of goals in five straight national team matches.
It might be easy for many to forget this incredible year because of what followed: the injury early in the 2014 World Cup opener against Ghana, the disastrous transfer to Sunderland and then the injury-riddled first season with Toronto FC. It all helped lead to many getting amnesia about just what a healthy and confident Altidore can do.
If there was a rock bottom it may have come in the summer, when his latest major hamstring injury forced him to miss Copa America. The U.S. went on without him, making a run to the semifinals, and suddenly there were questions about whether he still had a future as a national team starter. Similar questions permeated in Toronto, where TFC fans wondered aloud whether the club had made a terrible mistake swapping Jermain Defoe for Altidore.
Whether he was motivated by those doubts or simply by his own desire to return to his best, Altidore has returned from his summer hamstring injury a changed man. Not only has he been playing with an obvious confidence, the 27-year-old has also been playing with passion and a tinge of rage, like a man with something to prove.
The results are hard to ignore. Since returning from injury in July, Altidore has scored 15 goals and added seven assists in 20 matches. His production in the playoffs has been even better, as he's notched five goals and four assists in five matches. He is scoring in any number of ways, be it via free kick or surging run and finish, while also showing off a deft passing touch, as evidenced by his highlight-reel assist in extra time of Wednesday's dramatic victory against the Montreal Impact.
"I think Jozy's being Jozy," TFC coach Greg Vanney said on Wednesday. "He's showing what we all know has, and is capable of. I've always admired his power and strength, and as we arrived here last year, I was pleasantly surprised and incredibly surprised at how very good of a finisher he is, and how precise he is technically. He is an incredibly well-rounded striker.
“A lot of the credit goes to him and everybody that has helped him get into a nice happy place that he can just be himself, and give everything he has every night. And you can see he's an absolute monster out there. In some ways he's unstoppable when he gets going. Michael and I talked about that as Jozy was coming, that he will be that guy that defenders will just hate to defend and have to try and deal with because he's so powerful that he's almost unstoppable.
"He's been that for us in the playoffs, and I think he'll continue to be that.”
Whether or not this is the best form of Altidore's career, the argument can certainly be made that his overall game is more well-rounded than it has ever been. Maturity and experience have helped Altidore add elements to his game, such as improved passing, to combine with the deft finishing and combination of power and speed. He no longer has to wait for the game to come to him, and for teammates to provide him with service. Altidore can now go and find the ball and make things happen with it.
Bruce Arena was in attendance in Toronto on Wednesday to see Altidore up close, and he had to love what he was seeing. The U.S. coach is no stranger to Altidore, having given a then-17-year-old Altidore his first run as a professional starter with the 2007 New York Red Bulls. It was clear to see back then that Altidore had something special, as he formed an impressive partnership with Juan Pablo Angel and scored nine goals in a year that caught the eye of European scouts, eventually leading to a $10 million move to Villarreal a year later.
Though Arena was no stranger to seeing what an in-form Altidore can do, some fans in Toronto may have still needed some convincing. Not anymore though. Not after his display on Wednesday, when he ran through Montreal's defense like a tank, then finished the Impact off with the moves of a ballerina. The image of a relentless Altidore buzzing around BMO Field in the 100th minute of what was arguably the most exciting playoff game in MLS playoff history (and easily the most memorable match in Canadian soccer history) made believers out of everyone in attendance. And if it didn't, it should have.
Altidore enjoyed every bit of the victory, and the celebration that followed. Much like the team he now plays for, Altidore had every reason to enjoy Wednesday's win, after years of disappointments and frustrating twists of fate. Wednesday's win delivered relief as much as it provided joy, and as Altidore gripped the Eastern Conference championship trophy, he looked like a player at peace with finally being where he belongs.
Altidore didn't stick around very long after Wednesday's victory — a bit of a habit for him in recent playoff matches — choosing to avoid the media scrum and the inevitable questions about his form, and what it feels like to be playing the best soccer of his career. To Altidore, this is the player he has always been capable of being, and the player he has been before. With one more win, and one more dominating performance, Altidore could help make those questions change from "Is this the best Altidore we have ever seen?" to "How does it feel to be a champion?"