Saturday February 7th, 2015

CARSON, Calif. — Jozy Altidore can still remember the first time he met Michael Bradley. The year was 2003. Altidore was 14, Bradley was 16, and they overlapped for a short time at U.S. Soccer’s residency program in Bradenton, Florida. “I met him, Dax McCarty, Rodrigo Hidalgo and a bunch of guys that were there,” Altidore recalls. “I don’t think he remembers, but I remember. It was a big deal for me to come and meet them.”

They would become the best U.S. national team players of their generation, Altidore and Bradley, and in time they would indeed become close. Altidore traces that friendship back to the 2007 Under-20 World Cup in Canada, where they played for a team that beat Brazil (with Altidore scoring both goals) and an Uruguay team that had Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani before falling in the tournament quarterfinals.

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“We just clicked. We played and hung out all the time, and we’ve had a good relationship ever since,” says Altidore. “I learned Michael is a rare person. He’s the definition of a professional. He takes care of his body all the time, 24-7, and he’s the type of guy you want your kids to look at in terms of how he treats his body as his work. And he’s a winner. Sometimes that might make it uncomfortable, but he wants to win, and he’s a driven guy. I appreciate his passion.”

The U.S. is in a rough patch these days, having won just one game in its last nine, most of them friendlies, ahead of Sunday’s matchup here against Panama (4 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMás). But perhaps the most intriguing U.S. combination to watch in 2015 will be Altidore and Bradley, two central figures who have now joined each other on the same club team at Toronto FC.

Bradley knows how to draw the best out of Altidore, who had a time to forget at Sunderland. And, just as some of the world’s top national teams, like Germany and Spain, benefit from having multiple teammates from the same club, the day-to-day Altidore-Bradley partnership in Toronto could well pay dividends for the Stars & Stripes.

“We’ll get the best out of each other,” Altidore says, “and hopefully we’ll keep our level coming to the national team and show what we show in Toronto. Hopefully that’s a positive thing … We understand what each other gives to the game, and we can be real with each other. With Michael, if I’m having a bad game, he can say, ‘Jozy, f---in’ hell, come on, man, pick that s--- up, let’s go!’ And he says it in a way where I’m not getting at him. I know if it’s coming from him that it’s genuine. He’s that type of guy you can be straight with. Those are the realest people, the people you want to be around.”

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Aside from the stretch in 2007-08 when Clint Dempsey and Carlos Bocanegra played for Fulham, it’s rare for the U.S. national team to have some of its top players coming from the same club team. But that was part of the allure for Altidore when it came time to choose Toronto over some attractive offers in Europe.

“I had a great offer from Lille, a great offer from Werder Bremen, from Stuttgart, from some great clubs,” Altidore says. “But I thought the challenge [in Toronto] was unique. To play in a city like that with fans like that and to help make that team successful, it was too big of a chance to pass up."

If Altidore is going to reignite his club career, it will happen in Canada, the same place where he and Bradley first connected eight years ago. And any benefits will only accrue further to the national team. The two best U.S. players of their generation will be the pair to watch in 2015 whenever they’re on the field together.

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