The boos were unmistakable. And so was their pattern.
On a warm October afternoon in Atlanta, the last afternoon of the MLS regular season, they rained down from every corner of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, from people of all shapes and sizes scattered amid a record-breaking crowd of 71,874. They drenched two men, and two men only, whenever they touched the ball. Two American men. Two American men drenched with boos precisely because they were Americans – and because thousands of others felt those two had let them down.
Dramatic failures retrospectively require villains, and no two players slipped more naturally into the role than Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. Neither was singularly culpable in Trinidad. But both have long been polarizing figures, excessively championed by their supporters, unrelentingly criticized by their detractors. Shocking failure simply silenced the apologists, and amplified the critics. And amplified the boos.
It did not matter that Altidore and Bradley were about to complete the greatest regular season in MLS history. It did not matter that they would soon embark on a playoff run to a second straight MLS Cup. A week later in New Jersey, the boos morphed into much worse. They became “F— you Jozy” and “F— you Michael” chants. They became vile insults with religious undertones. Insults that Altidore called “classless.”
“Coming off the field, there’s a [fan] standing a foot away from me telling me I have no idea what it’s like to represent this country, that I didn’t die for this country, and I don’t deserve to be in this country because I don’t put my hand on my heart and I don’t sing [the national anthem],” Altidore said.
“I have no issue with the booing, and you feeling that myself and Michael and others are responsible for not qualifying for the World Cup. You’re right. It wasn’t the ‘F— you, Jozy.’ It wasn’t the ‘F— you, Mike.’ I have no problem with that. But when you start to attack people in different ways, when it comes to religion or patriotism, that’s what I meant by ‘classless.’”
But the unique story here is what happened next. Altidore and Bradley returned home. And they were embraced – have been embraced. Because back home, “Trinidad” is an island, not an infamous October night or a soccer match. Back home, Trinidad didn’t matter.
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Altidore and Bradly play in their “domestic” league, and enter its final on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) as favorites. But they don’t play domestically. It’s impossible to know what their post-Trinidad reception would have been like if they did. Their moves to Toronto, though, now feel like a coincidental blessing that’s allowed them to recover from World Cup elimination in the healthiest possible way.
“You always want to return back to a safe place,” Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney said Tuesday on a pre-MLS Cup conference call with reporters. “A place where people love you, a place where people are protecting you, where people are here for you. They were able to cross the border up to Canada, Toronto, where they are always received with open arms, and with huge applause, and support.”
The day after Trinidad, Vanney said that Altidore and Bradley would “feel” the loss for awhile. That it would stick with them. Nearly two months later, their exact emotional trajectories are an understandably touchy subject. But Trinidad clearly doesn’t weigh them down.
“People keep thinking I’m some wounded animal,” Altidore said after a memorable conference final victory over Columbus. “[The qualification failure] is what it is. It’s disappointing, but you have to move on from it and learn from it. … What happens in Toronto has nothing to do with what happened to the national team.”
Certain pockets of American fans – the same ones disseminating the boos – surely despise that sentiment. They hate the idea that the players responsible for the failure can brush it off while fans still rue it. There’s an expectation that players will share in their prolonged despair.
But that’s not how professional athletes operate. It can’t be how professional soccer players operate, with both club and country similarly important. An international star has to be able to detach one from the other. Altidore and Bradley have seemingly done that.
“We all recognize and understand that they went through a very tough period,” Vanney said Tuesday. “They’ve come out of it with great strength, and have learned from that process, and are applying that to our journey.”
Part of that journey is a “beautiful love story.” Altidore made that proclamation after battling through an ankle injury to send TFC back to MLS Cup last week. “The city means a lot to me,” he said. “I came here, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know what to expect from me. But I fell in love with this city, and I think the fans have fallen in love with me. I hope it’s the last club I play for.”
On Thursday, Bradley professed his love for Toronto as well. “This is a sports-mad city,” he said. “It has a way of wrapping its arms around its teams and its athletes, and if you can embrace that, if you can understand it, it’s a privilege and a responsibility.”
It’s as if Toronto has become a haven for both of them amid the heartbreak, and the vilification, and the hate. Altidore claims his relationship with his new home hasn’t changed since Trinidad. “What happened with the national team … plays no role in my affection for the city,” he said Tuesday. It hasn’t played any role in the city’s affection for him, either.
And that’s precisely the point. While the U.S. turned on Altidore and Bradley, Toronto’s warmth never wavered. Now they have it on the verge of a first major North American professional sports championship in 24 years.
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