Jozy Altidore has been a fixture up top for the United States men's national team since 2009, but each year has brought the same amount of criticism of the 26-year-old forward's play.
The Toronto FC man usually gets knocked for disappearing too much in key matches and failing to be a constant physical force against the best defenders in the world.
After scoring six goals in 14 matches on the international stage last year, Altidore, who suffered from a hamstring issue during the CONCACAF Gold Cup, decided to get in better shape in order to avoid injuries like the ones he dealt with in 2015.
Altidore showed up to the annual USMNT January camp a week early and 10 pounds lighter. The weight loss is expected to help him fend off future muscle injuries, according to Ives Galarcep of SBISoccer.com:
Ives Galarcep @SoccerByIves
If Jozy Altidore seemed leaner today it's because he has lost more than 10 pounds, getting leaner to try and cut down on muscle injuries2016-2-1 00:28:04
The new approach garnered praise from USMNT boss Jurgen Klinsmann, who was quoted by the official U.S. Soccer Twitter account:
U.S. Soccer @ussoccer
"He came in very good shape, very positive and good spirit and was determined to get 2016 started in the right way." - JK on Jozy #USAvISL2016-1-31 23:24:14
In his first two games of the year, Altidore looked like a changed man, as he led the line in fine fashion and scored his 32nd and 33rd international strikes against Iceland and Canada.
The 26-year-old forward picked up his first goal of 2016 on a nice run into the box against Iceland. Altidore cut in between a pair of Icelandic defenders and slotted home a pass from club teammate Michael Bradley to level the score at one goal apiece.
The American Outlaws @AmericanOutlaws
Surgical pass by Bradley. Solid finish from Jozy. #USMNT https://t.co/wmaeLNcG222016-1-31 21:31:31
On Friday against Canada, Altidore rose in the air in the 89th minute and knocked in a cross from substitute Ethan Finlay to hand the Yanks a well-deserved 1-0 victory over Canada at Carson, California's StubHub Center.
The American Outlaws @AmericanOutlaws
Ethan Finlay to Jozy Altidore AIRMAIL. #USMNT https://t.co/wAIqy8qu7Q2016-2-6 05:32:57
Throughout his first two matches of 2016, Altidore battled on the ball and showcased his physical ability against defenders. He also held the ball up well in the final third and put shots on target when the Yanks surged forward. All of those qualities are needed from the forward in each match the USMNT plays over the next 11 months in order for the U.S. to deem 2016 a successful year.
Sure, we may be looking too much into the performances against Iceland and Canada, but there is something different about Altidore's approach that has plenty of people like Klinsmann buzzing about what 2016 could hold for the fourth-best scorer in United States history.
“Good energy, he's hungry, he wants to prove himself that this is 2016, 'This is my year,'" Klinsmann said after the win over Canada, via Scott French of MLSSoccer.com. "He knows there's a huge [Copa America] tournament coming up in June, so he started really on the right foot this year. And he deserved that goal; he deserved it. He was trying hard, he missed a couple, then he put it in.”
The Yanks are going to need a fully fit Altidore to bang up top against the best defenders from South and North America in order to leave the Copa America Centenario with a respectable finish. Without a healthy Altidore, the U.S. failed to impress in attack at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2015 Gold Cup.
There are other players at forward who will chip in goals throughout 2016 like Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes and Bobby Wood, but none of them bring the physical style of play to the pitch that Altidore does. Altidore is able to change the game when he wants to with his holdup play. By keeping the ball at his feet by shielding off a defender or two, Altidore gives the rest of the team time to move into the final third and takes pressure off the defense.
That quality will be massive when June rolls around, as the Yanks are expected to be tested defensively in every match at the Copa America. If Altidore disappears like he has in the past, they could be run off the field on home soil and lose any momentum that will be gained heading into the competition.
Altidore should be able to practice the basic and advanced skills of being a forward at the club level with Toronto FC in Major League Soccer. Not only will the 26-year-old continue to build his rapport with Bradley, but he will also get to share the attacking chances with Sebastian Giovinco, who took the league by storm in 2015.
The 26-year-old American didn't have a terrible 2015, as he scored 13 goals in 25 matches for the Reds, but he was constantly overshadowed by Giovinco's performances on the pitch. If he combines well with Giovinco during the first few months of the domestic campaign, Altidore should enter the Copa America with a ton of confidence.
If Altidore parlays his strong start to the international calendar into an impressive first few months north of the border, we could see the 26-year-old in the form of his life by the summer. If that is the case, the Yanks have the potential to go deep into the Copa America and enter the hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying as the favorite to finish first.
Joe Tansey covers U.S. Soccer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.