To many fans of the USMNT, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore remain the faces of failure. Across the border to the north, however, in a town that loves its hockey at this time of year, those two permanently etched their name into Toronto sports lore. All the while, they helped turn one of North America’s most majestic urban locales into a soccer mad metropolis.
It all came to the forefront on Saturday night. In front of a raucous 30,584 at BMO Field, the two Americans put together a showcase of their best as soccer players when their Toronto FC team needed it the most. The result? A resoundingly dominant 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders to clinch the club’s first MLS Cup.
MLS Cup 2017: Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore Help Bring Euphoria to a Hard Luck Sports Town
The Reds’ triumph puts an end to a long stretch of disappointment for Toronto sports teams on a championship stage. With the exception of the Toronto Argonauts’ five Grey Cups, this is the first title for a major professional sports team from the city since the Blue Jays won their second straight World Series in 1993.
That same year, the Maple Leafs made the first of two straight NHL conference finals. But they lost both and have only been that far in the playoffs twice since (1998-99, 2001-02). The most damning mark of futility for the Leafs is the fact they haven’t played for a Stanley Cup in 50 years. It ranks as the longest title drought in the NHL.
On the court, things haven’t been much better. Since beginning play in 1995, the Raptors have a mere nine playoff appearances in 22 possible seasons. And until their run to the conference finals two seasons ago when they fell to the eventual NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers, only once had they ever advanced past the first round of the postseason.
What makes it all the more frustrating for the Toronto sports fan is the heartbreak that sets in as soon as the enhanced stakes of the playoffs come along. You won’t find a better example of that then what transpired in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the Leafs sporting a 4-1 lead in the third period of game seven, their first postseason series win since 2004 appeared certain. That was until the Boston Bruins scored three unanswered to force overtime and get the game-winner in the extra period.
Those are horrific memories that eat at the psyche of sports’ fans in Canada’s largest city. It generates a “here we go again” mentality intermixed with Murphy’s law. Look no further than last year’s MLS Cup against the same opponent in the same venue. Despite getting outshot 19-3 and not registering a single shot on target, Seattle somehow escaped with the trophy via a penalty shootout win.
The traumatic nature of the defeat had to have left fans shell-shocked. At the same time, the players who put their heart and soul into attaining that ultimate goal of winning a championship came as close as you can possibly get from reaching it soccer wise before it slipped away precipitously. But as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and TFC let that setback fuel them rather than define them.
“(For) every single guy in our team, every coach, every part of the staff from the second (Roman) Torres scored the winning penalty last year, (the drive) to get ourselves back here, to give ourselves another crack at it, honestly, there’s no other way to put it into words other than (it was) an obsession,” Bradley told The Athletic after the game.
“It’s hard to describe to people on the outside what it’s been like to live that every day,” he continued. “To live that in the beginning of preseason when it feels like you are years away from a game, let alone a playoff game, let alone a final. And the group that we have was so committed.”
If there’s any aspect of Saturday’s contest where Bradley showcased his own commitment, it manifested itself in what he does best on the field. Whether it’s covering ground, winning possession every which way, or functioning as a hub of distribution in central midfield, Bradley did it all. He led the team with nine recoveries, six tackles, and four interceptions while finishing with 91 percent passing accuracy.
“Every night, (Michael) puts his head down and plays the game for his team,” Altidore told SBI Soccer. “For me, if you put a group of guys behind Michael that share that mentality, you’re going to be successful.”
“There’s no player, for me, that I’ve seen in U.S. Soccer and I’ve been a part of it for a long time, (with Michael’s) dedication and commitment, and who just believes and who plays the game the right way. It’s team first always, it’s never about him. And tonight was another Michael performance.”
Altidore certainly held up his end of the commitment bargain. His goal an hour into the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final against Columbus Crew SC helped vault the Reds into MLS Cup. A week and a half later, it took him a tad longer but his 67th minute effort to finally beat Stefan Frei who had made nine saves up to that point gave TFC a breakthrough 187 minutes in the making. Victor Vazquez’s stoppage time insurance goal only added to the BMO Field delirium.
Those rapturous scenes were a thunderous crescendo and cathartic release after a year of pent up frustration over what happened a year ago. That reality wasn’t lost by this team. TFC’s fanbase has certainly endured a lot. The team missed the postseason during each of their first eight years of existence. When they finally qualified, they lost in humiliating fashion to inter-provincial rival Montreal Impact in 2015. Then came last year. And now, utter ecstasy.
“These people have suffered for a long time,” Altidore told CBC. “They’ve had to come watch games where their team’s getting dominated. And people that really didn’t care about the city, about what’s being built here would’ve left the team. Even in those years they were still averaging 20-22,000 people per game.”
“And to see a night like tonight, when the whistle blew, all these people just (experiencing) euphoria, it made it all worth it. Like Michael said, (and) I’m sure Greg (Vanney) was saying it earlier, this night was for them. They’ve been the driving force behind all this before any of us were even here. And so, to be able to repay that to them, it means the world.”