WASHINGTON, D.C. — The United States men's national team did not play a perfect match on Friday night against Peru, but with Jozy Altidore leading the line, the Yanks did take an important step forward as they prepare for the CONCACAF Cup against Mexico in October.
Altidore leveled the contest at one goal apiece in the 59th minute and then netted the game-winning goal in the 68th minute in front of a boisterous crowd at RFK Stadium.
By scoring a pair of goals, Altidore continued his impressive form of late that has seen him score in each of the last two Toronto FC matches off the bench. Altidore's form is a welcome sight to many in the American camp, especially after he left the CONCACAF Gold Cup following the knockout phase with an injury.
The 25-year-old forward admits he isn't at full strength yet, but he is aware of the steps he's taking to get better with each day.
“I feel like I’m getting there. I’m getting better and better all the time," Altidore said. "A lot of people don’t understand how it is to be injured because they don’t go through it. I’m feeling better. I’m taking my time. I’m happy that I was able to help the team tonight."
Not only was the Gold Cup disappointing for Altidore as an individual, it was also a major blow to the psyche of the USMNT. The Yanks finished fourth after falling to Jamaica in the semi-final and Panama in the third-place match.
“Coming off a tough Gold Cup. it was disappointing for a lot of us. To come out (tonight), and it wasn’t perfect by any means, it does a lot for your morale when you win a game," Altidore said.
The key to improving after a rough first half that saw Peru exploit some defensive weaknesses in the American back line was pressure on the Peru back four.
"At the Gold Cup, maybe we were a bit reluctant to be aggressive as we know we can be. I think tonight you saw guys working their butts off. Gyasi (Zardes) and DeAndre (Yedlin) ran a lot tonight," midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "Mix (Diskerud) did the same in the second half with the willingness to get after it. I think that bodes well for us going forward and it’s going to be key for us."
Although the USMNT attackers started the match slowly, they turned their intensity up a notch as the second half began and the results began to show. One minor thing that wasn't done in the first half, but was done immediately in the second, was Altidore's willingness to drift back to play one-touch passes in midfield to set up possession.
Thanks to his movement and ability to set up attacks deeper on the pitch, Altidore was able to gain momentum and surge forward into gaps that started to grow as the Peru defense grew weary in the humid conditions.
Altidore used his physicality in the box to earn a penalty in the 58th minute. Although his original shot from the spot was saved, he pounced on the rebound and equalized the contest for the Yanks.
On his second strike of the night, Altidore displayed plenty of wherewithal and hustle as the ball bounced from side to side in the penalty area. Altidore sprung the move forward with a long pass in the direction of Bobby Wood on the right side of the box. Wood then attempted to find Altidore, but the ball was taken from underneath him by a defender. Gyasi Zardes then played the ball across goal and found Altidore at the right post.
The relentless effort shown throughout the play by Altidore was a welcome sight after a first half in which he was barely involved in the USMNT attack. After 45 minutes, Altidore had one shot to his name, which was the same total center-back John Brooks earned.
With the captain's armband in his possession, Altidore displayed plenty of leadership in the second half on the way to a major victory for the Yanks ahead of a Tuesday friendly with Brazil and the October showdown versus Mexico.
“He has the privilege to be the captain and he is full of pride," manager Jurgen Klinsmann said. "It gives him something very special and he’s proud of that moment."
Altidore even surprised his manager by going the full 90 in the balmy conditions. Instead of making way for Aron Johannsson, the Toronto FC man partnered him for the final 19 minutes.
"I was actually surprised he went all the way through it," Klinsmann said. "I timed it so Aron would come on for Jozy, but he was good. That’s a great sign. It’s great to have him back."
Altidore's play was not the only positive the Yanks took away from the win over the third-place finisher at this summer's Copa America. The wing duo of Zardes and Yedlin wreaked havoc on the Peru back line throughout the contest with their relentless effort and pace. Both players improved their stock ahead of the two vital matches on the USMNT's schedule.
Although the back line showcased some faults, especially Omar Gonzalez in the first half, the defensive unit got it together and put in a decent performance in front of Brad Guzan, who was called into action on a few occasions in the second half.
The standout defender was left-back Tim Ream, who constantly denied Peru's wingers space on the right flank. Matt Besler also impressed in his brief role as a substitute. With Peru attempting to tie the game late, Besler stepped in and made a few key clearances. The defensive picture is still not ideal with Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley out injured, but there were enough positives on Friday night to call this showing an improvement.
Putting the ugly shadow of the Gold Cup completely in the rearview mirror will take more time, but on Friday the Yanks did take a vital step forward in a match where they had to.
Joe Tansey covers U.S. Soccer for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.