Our sport can be a heartless, vicious place. Many in it see victory as its only objective value, and believe all is fair in its pursuit.
In the grand scheme, fans’ constant cascades of boos and pointed, profane cursing of players on the visiting team doesn't meet the measure of a felony offense.
Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley already knew what they were in for as Toronto FC prepared to visit the New York Red Bulls in Leg 1 of their Eastern Conference Semifinals series. The longtime US national team duo had experienced an explicitly hostile welcome from fans in Atlanta on Decision Day, as USMNT fans got their first chance to express firsthand their disapproval of their role in the 2018 World Cup qualifying failure.
Perhaps they deserve it; it's something of a ritual in this game. During Monday's game, FOX broadcast commentator Brad Friedel shared his recollections of the boos that rained down on every England international in the English Premier League after the Three Lions failed to qualify for USA 1994.
Yet it still felt jarring, somehow more personal, to witness the depth and fervor of the venom directed at them at Red Bull Arena. Whether it’s the sign of an established soccer culture finally coming to bear, or the latest visible symptom of a deep, festering schism at the heart of the sport in this country, is a matter of personal perspective. But the emotions were visceral and raw.
Both Altidore and Bradley made their professional start as teenagers with New York many moons ago, putting in the hard work to earn the respect of Red Bulls and MetroStars supporters of the times. But that was a long ways back – ancient history to the typical modern USMNT fan, one who’s been consumed by anger and sadness over the past month as the reality of a United States-free Russia 2018 continues to reverberate.
That reality is clanging around in the players’ brains, too. Don’t doubt that for a minute. But if you’ve been feeling like the USMNT players involved in that stunning disaster of a performance down in Couva, Trinidad on October 10 haven’t shown more public contrition, or laid bare their inner pain so it’s somehow more obvious that they share their supporters’ heartbreak, Monday night should have answered it for you.
“No. I didn’t notice anything different. It is what it is,” maintained a painstakingly even-keeled Bradley after his team’s 2-1 road win over the Red Bulls.
“The people that come are allowed to support their team and try to do whatever they can to make an atmosphere, to give their team an advantage. So how that goes is completely up to them,” he added. “As players, as competitors, you enjoy playing in big games, you enjoy competing when everything is on the line, you enjoy playing in big atmospheres. You worry about things you can control … you let the rest speak for itself.”
For athletes at the top level, no weakness can be shown, and there's precious little room for mercy in any direction. The psychological weight of the craft can be soul-crushing. And so a persona of resilience is required to weather the peaks and valleys, to an extent that most laypersons on the street would have a hard time understanding.
Altidore and Bradley have lived and worked in that pressure-cooker for a long time, and at locales around the world, for club and country. For whatever reasons, both have been ready targets for USMNT backlash over the years; Bradley probably got it a bit worse because of his links to his father’s coaching career and the unfounded, usually unanswerable taunts that inspired. While former US coaches Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena have left the stage, the players have to keep going. It’s their job, and their calling, and if fate has decreed that they’re to be the sacrificial goats of the 2018 qualifying fiasco, so be it.
And clearly, they long ago learned how to make lemonade.
“I don't know about enjoying it. Especially coming here, it's bittersweet,” said Altidore, who often appears to enjoy producing strong performances in the face of jeering crowds.
“I had a lot of good memories, though, with the Red Bulls. It was my first club ... Look, the World Cup, being disappointed with that, I get. I understand. But the other stuff is a bit disappointing. I never was disrespectful towards these people. It was my first club, and I have so much admiration for the club. … people fail to understand: Nobody suffers, nobody loses more than the players.”
“I have some good memories. But it is what it is. There's no loyalty anymore. So I guess all bets are off.”
It’s a savage twist to see Toronto FC become the beneficiaries of this strange, sad situation, as the USMNT duo can now pour all the pain and rage within and without into the Reds’ singular pursuit of a treble-winning campaign, with MLS Cup dead ahead and looking well within the range of this superb side.
“If you want to be the team holding the trophy in the end, then you have to deal with these kind of nights. They can't faze you,” said Bradley of TFC’s hard-edged dispatching of a spirited, but error-prone, Red Bulls squad.
“The pressure for our team is pressure that we put on ourselves. I don’t spend a whole lot of time worrying about anything on the outside.”
Think back to TFC’s “Bloody Big Deal” era, when Tim Leiweke hit town eager to make a splash and announce a sea change for a club where losing woefully appeared endemic almost from day one. While US observers had decidedly mixed reactions to Altidore and Bradley returning to North America after their winding European adventures, TFC’s Canadian supporters were dubious in their own right, skeptical of a big-talking Yank executive billing a cultural shift via two of his high-priced countrymen.
Fast-forward to the present, and the Reds faithful who’ve watched Altidore, Bradley – and of course Sebastian Giovinco – week-in and week-out, as they led a fearsome squad and spearheaded an organizational about-face with few parallels in MLS history, are believers.
The star-spangled spectators south of the border may never be. Many can never accept or forgive the decisions, shortcomings and other human foibles of these USMNTers shining for a Canadian team in an essentially American league. The players in question will just have to deal with it. And they will.
As they have -- straight towards the most dominant championship campaign in MLS history. There's but one trophy left to lay claim.