TORONTO — Whatever despair, frustration or negativity awaited Jozy Altidore upon his return from Trinidad was limited by the walls of his Toronto home and the confines of his own head.
The spell immediately following the USA’s shock elimination from the 2018 World Cup was “one of the toughest periods of my life,” Altidore told reporters in mid-October. “The darkest three days, I didn’t really leave the house or do anything.”
Then, after helping Toronto FC lift and celebrate its first Supporters' Shield, the pain had subsided enough to warrant a walk. Outside, the vibe felt totally different—perhaps a bit foreign.
“Just going to get a coffee and seeing somebody in a TFC shirt, and hear them say how much [the Shield] means to them, how well the team’s done, I’m just reminded how special the club and the city are, and the opportunity I have,” Altidore said. “I was lucky to be able to bounce back and go out there and represent the city well, and keep these fans happy.”
Exit Toronto’s Union Station and take a walk along Front Street, which runs parallel to the lake shore that leads to BMO Field a couple miles to the west, and you’ll see black banners advertising Saturday’s MLS Cup final rematch between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders. They’re not the first thing you notice, but they still occupy some prime real estate. And in this bustling metro area of some 6 million people, that’s a fair representation of TFC’s status. It has a place in the city’s heart.
Despite years of flailing, TFC now is regarded top-to-bottom as something close to a model MLS organization. The club matters here, and the stakes on Saturday are high. The Reds and their fans are eyeing their first league championship, an unprecedented treble, a claim as the finest team in MLS history and redemption following last year’s agonizing setback to Seattle. For Altidore and his longtime friend, USA and TFC teammate Michael Bradley, there’s something on offer that’s far more personal: the opportunity to end a difficult stretch on a very high note and a chance to give back to a community that’s embraced them as something more than countrymen.
“In general, this is a sports-mad city,” Bradley said here Thursday. “It has a way of wrapping its arms around its teams and its athletes, and if you can embrace that and you can understand that it’s a privilege and a responsibility—that it won’t always be easy and perfect—but if you have character, you have personality, you’re willing to represent them and the city in the best possible way, it’s incredible. And I think the relationship our team has with our fans and the city is incredible. It’s so unique, and we’re going to draw on that fact in a big way [in the final].”
TFC entered MLS in 2007 and was bad for a long time. Yet the fans kept coming. Average annual attendance dipped below 20,000 only twice even as the club somehow managed to do the near-impossible and miss the playoffs eight straight seasons. And any skepticism that Bradley and Altidore would be just two more big-money signings that failed to deliver in red dissipated pretty quickly. The pair has oscillated between good and great, helping TFC to three straight playoff berths, two Canadian Championship crowns, two Eastern Conference titles and Saturday’s chance at the big prize.
Along the way, after returning to MLS from Europe, Bradley and Altidore made themselves at home. Although each has sent the majority of his career (and adult life) abroad, both now have appeared for TFC more frequently than any other club. Bradley and his wife, Amanda, are raising a family here. Altidore, who has a son, said during a conference call this week that he “didn’t know much about it before I came here, but it’s been a pleasant surprise for me and my family. … I’ve loved Toronto from my first [day] there. It was hard navigating the city, getting comfortable [at first], but after that I’ve loved it.”
That relationship—Altidore last month called it “a beautiful love story”—has become one of the most prominent stories of this final. It had been about the city’s support, the players’ commitment, the project, and the journey they undertook together. Now, it’s highlighted by something that was mostly trivia when the pair signed on in 2014 (Bradley) and ’15 (Altidore). They were returning to MLS, and it just so happened the club ready to splash the cash for their services was located across a border. At the time, that meant getting used to a few Canadian quirks. They still were coming “home.”
But now, after their failure in Trinidad, the border represents a place of refuge and unconditional support. It’s likely that fans of a U.S.-based MLS club would be more forgiving of locals who played a part in the qualifying disaster. In Toronto, however, there’s no gray area. Bradley and Altidore have delivered for the city and continue to do so, the fans love them for it, and there’s little doubt that’s been a source of strength during trying times. It stands in contrast to the boos, derision and anger they’ve experienced during recent games in the U.S.
“They lost something that was very dear to them,” TFC coach Greg Vanney told SI.com during a conference call this week. “My comments to them as they came back were, ‘You always want to return back to a safe place—a place where people love you, where people are protecting you, where people are here for you.' And they were able to cross the border up into Canada and Toronto, where they are always received with open arms and with huge applause and support.”
Vanney continued, “Each of them has gone through the loss…in different ways, in their own ways, and I think that’s how people do that. But both of them have come out on the other side with huge motivation and great commitment, and focus on this team and this drive for MLS Cup and it’s been great for our team to have that even though we all recognize and understand that they went through a very tough period.”
Bradley and Altidore were jeered by a massive crowd in Atlanta nearly every time they touched the ball during the regular season finale in late October. Altidore defiantly cupped his hand around his ear after scoring in the second half and said afterward, “I’ve been dealing with this since I was young. … It’s not going away anytime soon.”
Said Vanney, “I’m sure Michael knew that something was coming—and Jozy—and I think it was not a surprise. I think that’s what fans do. When you come into so-called enemy territory, their job is to heckle you and get on top of you.”
But somehow, for Bradley and Altidore, “enemy territory” had become their own country, the one they’d represented a combined 250 times at the senior level. It got worse during the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals at Red Bull Arena. Both spent significant parts of their childhood in New Jersey. But no matter. They were booed and battered with F-bomb chants, and Altidore claimed there were comments made concerning his “religion or patriotism.” Altidore was raised as a Jehova’s Witness. TFC complained, the league investigated and it became a national story.
The booing continued in Columbus, where TFC shut out the hosts in a 0-0 draw. Bradley then twisted the knife in the locker room at Mapfre Stadium, answering a question about the Crew’s imminent move to Austin by expressing sympathy for the “small group of loyal supporters” in central Ohio and adding, “You can’t deny the fact that things here have really fallen behind in terms of the atmosphere in the stadium, the quality of the stadium, what it’s like to play here.”
The contrast he drew was clear. BMO Field is full, supportive and loyal, and its denizens chanted Bradley’s name after he chased down and tackled a wide-open Justin Meram near the start of the deciding leg. And then they cheered for Altidore when he powered through the pain caused by a twisted ankle and scored the series-winning goal.
“Those guys, they're loved up here regardless,” Vanney said afterward. “And I think honestly they're loved [in the U.S.], they're just scapegoats right now in the moment. I think they appreciate that and they know that they have this city and the fans behind them."
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Where was that determination in Couva, USA fans might ask? What happened on that perfect storm of an evening, and why, is going to be a matter of perspective and conjecture—an American soccer inkblot test—for years to come. It’s not surprising that Bradley and Altidore, who’ve been polarizing figures for a long time, have shouldered a hefty chunk of the blame. They’re highly visible team leaders from whom much is expected, and they play for MLS’s top club. They’ll always be stained by that failure, and their success in Toronto is something in which American supporters can’t really share.
Bradley talks frequently about focusing only on what he can control. He started to learn that years ago, when his career kicked off amid accusations of nepotism. He can’t change what people think. He can only learn, regroup and do his best. And there’s no way at this point he can soothe the hurt south of the border.
"I don't spend two seconds worrying about any of this stuff. I leave that to everybody on the outside to comment on, to discuss. Ultimately it's noise—needless noise—distraction,” he told reporters following the game at Red Bull Arena.
What he can do Saturday is help ease the pain from TFC’s loss in last year’s final, bringing a championship to a city that’s rarely, if ever, been ambivalent about him. He’s appreciated and adored, and he aims to return the favor.
“When you play and compete at the highest level there are no guarantees ever,” Bradley said after returning from Trinidad. “Even after last year's final, the only chance you have is to give everything you have and spill your heart and your soul into something, and even by doing that there’s no guarantee that you get anything out on the other side. And so when things don’t go your way—when there is adversity—you have no choice but to respond to keep going, to keep working, to use it as motivation and that’s what I’ll do.”
He continued, “I can promise everybody that in no way is the disappointment of not qualifying for a World Cup going to play into what were doing here. … You know we’ve had an incredible season. We’ve won two trophies, and we are ready to give everything to make sure we lift the third.”