Toronto FC was always going to be one of the main players in the race for the Supporters' Shield and Eastern Conference in Major League Soccer, but the club has elevated its status in those competitions lately with the reintroduction of Jozy Altidore to the starting XI.
The United States men's national team forward has been plagued by hamstring injuries at the worst times on the international level as he has missed parts of three major tournaments in the last three years. He also missed a good chunk of time for Toronto this season.
Since returning to the pitch as a substitute on July 23, the 26-year-old designated player has shown how much of an impact player he can be in the stretch run for the Reds.
Altidore has found the back of the net in five of his last six games, including one in each of his last four contests. All of that success is coming as he still works his way back to full fitness.
"It’s just getting the minutes and the legs under you," Altidore told reporters after Toronto's win on Saturday against Philadelphia. "I think cardio-wise I’m OK. It’s just getting the legs in the humidity and keeping them turning. It’s a tough time to come back in the summer. It’s not easy on the legs, but I’m feeling good."
Altidore's physical hold-up play brings a different element to the Toronto attack that also contains Sebastian Giovinco, who is tied for the lead in the Golden Boot race alongside David Villa of New York City FC.
Marking Giovinco's speed and ability on the ball was already a tough task for opponents. Now they have to deal with Altidore's bruising style of play in the final two months of the regular season.
The return of Altidore only helps how manager Greg Vanney sets up his squad and tactically works his way through matches.
It’s huge for us. Jozy’s a big part of our team and you know he provides us with a outlet. He’s obviously a guy in front of goal who can create opportunities for himself when he plays big.
He’s also our target if we get out wide and we have to serve because of the size in front of goal. And I think he draws attention that allows Sebastian to find a little bit of extra space on the field and I think they’re doing a great job of finding each other and combining with each other.
He’s massive and he’s probably underrated in terms of the amount of defensive work he gives. As a striker, he does a lot of work and he’s responsible. He’s always looking for ways he can help the team.
The chemistry with Giovinco that was there before Altidore's injury absence is coming back quickly as Toronto continues to surge up the Eastern Conference table.
"Even before, I thought the best moments we had was our first season together when we first started," Altidore said. "I thought that was when we were at our best. But we’re getting back to it. And Seba’s Seba. He’s gonna be great. It’s easy to play with a great player like him."
With their win against Orlando City on Wednesday, the Reds are now on top of the Eastern Conference with 43 points, two points ahead of second-place NYCFC. Toronto's last two victories have come on the road, which the club sees as key despite a good amount of home games on the back end of the schedule.
"For us, we know we have the home games, but it’s important that we don’t rely on the home games at the end," Vanney said.
Six of Toronto's final eight contests will be played at home. The Reds started their season on the road for eight games as construction finished at BMO Field.
Now that they have an advantage during the closing stages of the regular season, the Reds have postseason home games in mind. They also could challenge for the Supporters' Shield if they pick up enough points. They are only two points behind FC Dallas in that competition.
"We want to give our fans a home playoff game that they can attend, many of them if possible," Vanney said. "But our regular-season priority is to get into a home playoff position and obviously winning the East would be our No. 1 goal."
Altidore and the entire Toronto squad have motivation driving them to reach the top spot in the league. Toronto made the playoffs for the first time in 2015, but the trip into the postseason didn't last long as Montreal eliminated the club at Stade Saputo in the opening round.
"That’s our motivation, to take steps each year we’re here," Altidore said. "Last year we made the playoffs. This year the goal is obviously to win a championship but we gotta get a playoff game at home and got to get fans to buy into what we’re doing here. That’s key to us."
If Altidore continues to find the back of the net and Giovinco keeps up at his current scoring pace, Toronto has a great chance of hoisting the MLS Cup in December.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.