Soccer fans and media have an ugly tendency – thanks in large part, perhaps, to the dehumanizing shorthand of transfer gossip – to reduce players to economic units, market-priced commodities valued on form, attributes, statistics and price tags.
If you carried this mindset to its extreme, you could callously mark Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley as “sell” stocks at this trying point in their careers. Despite long and mostly laudable track records for club and country, their reputations have been hammered by their central visibility in the US national team’s painful failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup – a stain on their resumes loudly jeered by flocks of boobirds at multiple opposing venues in the US in the weeks since that stunning night in Couva, Trinidad.
Many observers seem convinced that they will never escape the shadow of that failure, no matter what heights they may achieve from now until they hang up their boots. And that’s certainly possible.
So it was quite something when a gimpy Altidore donned the hero’s cape on Wednesday night, shaking off an ankle knock to net the Eastern Conference-clinching winner for Toronto FC just before limping off the pitch in the 68th minute, eventually ending the magical run of those crowd-pleasing underdogs Columbus Crew SC at BMO Field.
It was the sole highlight of a jittery evening for the Reds and their supporters, a moment of brilliance that redeemed some nearly disastrous deer-in-headlights hesitance from the favorites, who in this postseason have yet to summon the imperious dominance shown over their relentless season-long march to the Supporters’ Shield.
And it was indeed a true “Rocky”-type moment, just the sort of storybook triumph over adversity that sets American sporting imaginations afire.
We all have our favorites: The Miracle on Ice, Kirk Gibson’s homer, Curt Schilling’s bloody sock, David Tyree’s helmet catch – and around this time last year in MLS it was Seattle’s Jordan Morris, conjuring up a “flu game” for the Sounders that drew comparisons to Michael Jordan’s eponymous moment two decades ago.
“This makes the difference,” Altidore’s provider Victor Vazquez said of his teammate’s fortitude. “They are a good team, we are a good team, but sometimes in these kind of games, the quality is not enough.”
Yet Altidore’s is an iconic performance that relatively few in his homeland will immediately commit to their mental repository of soccer lore. Because TFC are from Canada, because they are the most expensive and maybe the best team in league history. And of course, because the collective scars of the 2018 qualifying cycle are going to throb with blood and pain for the foreseeable future for all involved.
That’s a shame, even if the Reds faithful sing his and Bradley’s praises as loudly as their voices can stand it to make up the gap. It also makes Altidore the living, breathing avatar for this peculiar time in North American soccer. Which is sad, strange and also somehow quite fitting.
J-O-Z-Y. It takes a mere four letters to strike up animated debates across US soccer fandom. He enduringly inspires extremes of both praise and pillory. We’re now nearly a decade on from his teenage transfer from the New York Red Bulls to CF Villarreal and it still carries the biggest price tag of any outgoing departure in MLS history, a lasting testament to his towering abilities as well as the scale of the frustration he – and by extension legions of USMNT fans – experienced at his lowest moments in Europe.
He’s already an American success story, rising from humble Haitian-American roots to the brightest stages in the world’s game. Yet that appears to have only whetted the appetite of a voraciously hopeful soccer nation desperately awaiting its global hero. Some saw retreat in his head-turning 2015 move to TFC, though it was striking to hear him recollect that decision in the exact opposite light on Wednesday.
“I took a big risk to leave Europe, where I’ve wanted to be my whole career, to come to a project that was different,” Altidore told MLSsoccer.com’s David Gass postgame, “but could be so rewarding if it got done the right way.
“For two, three years we’ve done a lot of great things, but we’re missing that. It would mean the world to win MLS Cup.”
Jozy hasn’t lived up to every expectation – precious few phenoms do. But they still have to wake up each morning and move forward towards something brighter, whether you label it fulfillment, redemption or simple survival. He’s soldiered on through a range of setbacks and looks ready to do so for some time to come, a mindset that is running through his squad as they slog through these Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs in stark contrast to the turbocharged fluidity of the regular season.
“This is the only way that we saw the year ending,” he added. “Obviously it wasn’t going to be easy, but we were obsessed with getting back to this game.”
For USMNT fans, for now at least, the mere sight of Altidore and his longtime friend and teammate Bradley epitomize the searing disappointment on the road to Russia. But that’s unlikely to faze them now, especially with another MLS Cup coming to their imposing home ground, providing a long-sought chance to make up for last year’s heartbreak at the hands of Seattle.
North of the border, they remain heroes without asterisks, titans for a proud city that will finally and eagerly vanquish the final lurking ghosts of TFC’s past when – if – Altidore & Co. lift 2017's third and final piece of major hardware next week.