Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore will define success for both club and country

Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore will define success for both club and country

HARRISON, N.J. – The first Major League Soccer game to kick off in 2016 was decided, of course, by the 2015 Most Valuable Player.

Sebastian Giovinco, the Italian dynamo forward who stands just 5-foot-4, cleats and all, finally broke down the New York Red Bulls defense in the 80th minute with a low cross to rookie Tsubasa Endoh, who was bundled over in the box by Kemar Lawrence. Having kissed a shot off the post minutes earlier, Giovinco scored from the penalty spot to put Toronto FC ahead on its way to the 2-0 victory on Sunday.

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In injury time, he got an assist when he sent Marky Delgado away for the other goal.

Naturally, it was Giovinco, who led the league in both goals and assists last year – 22 and 16, respectively, setting a record for combined points – who finally got the better of the Red Bulls, who hoisted their second regular season pennant in three years to the rafters before the game. He either scored or served up 38 of his club's 58 goals last year as the Reds finally reached the playoffs on the ninth attempt – or the play-in game, anyway.

Michael Bradley anchors the midfield for both TFC and USMNT. (Getty Images)
Michael Bradley anchors the midfield for both TFC and USMNT. (Getty Images)

Further back, Michael Bradley, captain for both club and country, clogged up the Red Bulls' vaunted midfield along with Will Johnson. They laid the groundwork for the win even though the home team largely overran the Canadian visitors in the second half.

It was a promising start to a team of which lots is expected this season, even though Toronto FC is a club historically defined by failure.

But there probably isn't another team in the league so dependent on just a few players. Striker Jozy Altidore's absence – yet another hamstring tweak, an injury that has dogged him since cutting his 2014 World Cup short after just 23 minutes – was felt in the lack of presence up front.

Toronto, however, will almost certainly lose two of those three foundational players – Bradley and Altidore – for some part of the summer when the United States men's national team enters the Copa America Centenario on American soil. And it's quite possible that Giovinco will be called up by Italy for the European Championships – he has been selected four times since joining TFC, all of them for Euro qualifiers.

Since its inception, the league has failed to observe the international calendar, meaning MLS games have often clashed with international dates. That means teams that perform well typically are robbed of their biggest contributors when they earn national team call-ups while their club plays on without them.

Increasingly, MLS makes an effort to lay its schedule around FIFA dates on which international games take place. It didn't always do that. "MLS, I've been critical in the past of them not respecting FIFA dates," Bradley said. "To give them credit, they're taking a little break in the group stage [of the Copa Centenario]. I think that goes a long way."

But plenty of overlap remains. Certainly, the league's June 3-17 break – akin to the one it took during the 2014 World Cup – allows teams with national teamers to curb the amount of time their stars will be gone. Yet it hardly solves the problem entirely. The U.S. will likely play some kind of tune-up match – if not two – before kicking off its Copa on June 3 and surely will stage a training camp beforehand as well. For every round that the Americans advance past the group stage, Bradley and Altidore could be gone another four to six days apiece.

Jozy Altidore will leave TFC in late May for Copa America Centenario duty. (The Canadian Press via AP)
Jozy Altidore will leave TFC in late May for Copa America Centenario duty. (The Canadian Press via AP)

Italy's Euro, meanwhile, doesn't begin until June 13, while Italy plays a send-off game against Scotland on May 29. Giovinco could ostensibly be gone from then through the July 10 final.

Toronto could be without its star-studded spine for weeks, severely hampering them for a long stretch of MLS games. The Canadian Championship semifinals will also take place in early June, and while that isn't such a significant tournament, it nevertheless puts a berth in the next CONCACAF Champions League on the line.

That leaves head coach Greg Vanney and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko with no choice but to try to build as much depth as they can, in spite of the enormous constraints on MLS payrolls and the sheer impossibility of replacing Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco.

"We all do the same thing in this league," Vanney said. "Because we don't have the largest of rosters and when you have international guys on your team in this league unfortunately you pay the price by losing them for some games."

MLS teams get to massage their own schedules somewhat, allowing them to black out a few dates – this is done, at least in part, for those who own their stadiums and supplement their revenues by putting on other events, like concerts – but TFC decided to use them to clear the international dates outside the summer, per Bezbatchenko. And he believes they might well be the only club in the league to have done that. But still, the summer issue remains.

"It's frustrating," Bezbatchenko said. "I understand why it happens. Unfortunately, we can't play on the world calendar. We have our calendar. So there's going to be times when our league has to play during these competitions."

But you can't help but feel that the league disincentivizes ambition. "We get punished for pushing the envelope," Bezbatchenko continued. "And that's what hurts the most. We're out there spending money to try to bring in stars in their prime, and in some ways you get punished for it. It's a Catch-22. It is perverse. But we know that going in."

In a strange way, the U.S. national team's and Toronto FC's fates are inextricably linked this year. The Copa will be the biggest men's tournament held stateside since the 1994 World Cup. The Americans will want to show well, in spite of a stacked field and a tough group of Colombia, Costa Rica and Paraguay. And in order to perform up to their ability, they need Bradley and Altidore to mine a rich vein of form in June.

The Yanks need those two on point to stave off embarrassment on their own turf. That means they'll need to begin the season well with TFC. Which, in turn, means that they'll be missed all the more by their club when they're gone.

Jurgen Klinsmann doesn't depend on anyone so heavily as he does on those two. Not necessarily because they are the team's best players – in their own positions, at the very least – but because their skillsets are irreplaceable. Bradley's distribution, defensive cover, and, yes, even his creativity these days are crucial in central midfield. And there is no alternative for Altidore's habit of occupying several defenders and going on timely scoring runs.

At the World Cup, when Altidore was injured and Bradley didn't play up to his own towering standards, the U.S. struggled to muster much in attack and largely failed to hold onto or adequately distribute the ball in midfield. Neither man is replaceable.

Yet this is also true for Toronto.

The international dates issue in MLS has not yet been fixed. "The reality is we have a tough schedule," Johnson said. "We can't play in some of these cities in the winter. It's an ongoing problem that probably doesn't have a perfect solution."

The better Toronto FC does this season, the more harshly it is likely to be punished for success.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.