TORONTO — Sometimes athletes who are about to perform in a championship bask in the spectacle. They soak up the atmosphere and the attention, and they take the opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments of a long season and the greater meaning of the big stage ahead.
Then, there is Jozy Altidore.
The Toronto FC striker was asked on Thursday about his sore ankle, the one that was sprained in the conference final, and on which he still managed to score the winning goal.
“It’s good,” he said. Altidore, at the same MLS Cup press conference, was later asked a much longer question about the ankle. Did he think it would be an issue? Is he farther along in the recovery process than he expected to be at this point?
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. Later still, asked if he remembered what it felt like to watch Seattle lift the championship trophy last year on Toronto’s home pitch, Altidore replied: “Not great.”
All of which is fine. Sometimes guys don’t feel chatty. Altidore can talk on Saturday with his boots and all that. But while the forward was adopting an all-business posture, it fell to his teammate Michael Bradley to reflect on what all of this means.
The short version: it means a lot. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the 30-year-old Bradley was in the mood to be reflective. After the brutal loss on penalty kicks in the MLS Cup last year, and the tortuous exit of the United States from World Cup qualifying in October, he has another chance for a signature career win. For someone who was one of the biggest American soccer prodigies ever, who was piling up goals as a teenager in the Dutch first division and went on to play in the top leagues in Germany, England and Italy, it might feel like that top-of-the-mountain moment has been a long time coming.
He was asked on Thursday if revenge for last year’s loss to the Seattle Sounders was on anyone’s mind.
“Revenge is not really a part of it,” Bradley said. “I think we’re all excited it’s Seattle again, but for me, the way I look at things, this is about our group of guys, our club, this city, the road that we have all taken to get here, what it meant to get here after the disappointment and heartbreak of last year, to have to live each and every day this year knowing that at the back of our minds this was all we wanted, (which) was to give ourselves another crack.”
Bradley, on a roll now, continued: “In my mind this is about us, this is about stepping on the field on Saturday and going for it, even in the biggest game, having a group of guys who, in a fearless and aggressive way, are ready to go after things.”
It is an oddity of Major League Soccer that there is even a playoff at all. Most domestic soccer leagues don’t have a post-season; if you finish with the most points in the regular season, you win the title. In that sense, what Toronto FC did in finishing atop MLS this season would for many club teams have been the ultimate goal. But all Bradley and his teammates have said this week is that when you play in MLS, it is all about winning the Cup. There is evidence that this is more than just motivational talk. In Toronto FC’s practice facility at Downsview Park, a wall of the players’ lounge has three glass-covered holes cut out. One holds the Canadian championship trophy that TFC secured earlier this season. One has a spot for the CONCACAF Champions Cup; the club will return to that competition next year. And the third spot, labelled MLS Cup, sits empty. That’s the hardware that TFC needs to complete what has been a remarkable two-year run.
It’s remarkable mostly because of where TFC was. When Bradley arrived in the winter of 2014, the team was notable for being as successful off the field as it was unsuccessful on it. His arrival itself was only partially successful: Bradley’s signing was announced alongside that of English striker Jermain Defoe, who started strong but then quickly soured on Toronto and MLS. Despite the shock of those big-dollar, big-name purchases, TFC missed the playoffs again that season. But unlike Defoe, Bradley embraced the new team and new league, and he was named the club captain the following season, when it finally broke into the playoffs for the first time. Two years later, it is a powerhouse. Bradley wasn’t around for the worst of those many lean TFC years, but he knows something of its disappointments.
He knows something of its successes now, too. And he says they need to take the fearlessness that has gotten them to this point into Saturday’s final, where a raucous, if chilly, crowd awaits.
“Whether it’s home or away, regardless of who we are playing against, we have tried to be aggressive, tried to go for it, tried to win,” the captain said. “We are going to do that one more time and see where that leaves us.”
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