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Bradley, Altidore's historic success at Toronto more than just a U.S. subplot

Bradley, Altidore's historic success at Toronto more than just a U.S. subplot
From ESPN - December 5, 2017

If there's a certain inevitability about the fact that Toronto's 2017 will be popularly understood in the context of a tough 2017 for its U.S. national team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, there's no appetite for that storyline within Toronto itself.

The organization's single-minded pursuit of a title has taken on the quality of a forced march at moments during these playoffs; the novelty of the team's first exuberant playoff campaign in front of its own fans a year ago has been very different this time around. At moments, expectation has weighed heavily, character has been tested and there has been an air of grim concentration and focus to see off the New York Red Bulls and Columbus Crew that's stood in contrast to the cavalier emotions that swept the team to the final last year.

Yet despite being squarely on board with that mood of collective accountability, Bradley and Altidore have been unable to escape focus during this run as the USA's World Cup failure continues to color the subsequent actions of everyone associated with it. From hurled beer in Atlanta on the last day of the regular season, to boos and abuse at Red Bull Arena, to Columbus fans taking a break from "Save The Crew" chants to single out Bradley every time he touched the ball, Bradley and Altidore have been the focus of U.S. fan resentment that ironically has been given focus by their success on the field.

Had Toronto already been eliminated from MLS Cup, the pair would be joining the likes of Tim Howard, Brad Guzan, Darlington Nagbe, Matt Besler and Alejandro Bedoya in long offseasons with plenty of opportunity for private introspection. Instead, they are front and center for their team as it stands a game away from a treble, and forced to try to juggle the duties of a tough postseason, with an added layer of symbolism and scrutiny that's been loaded onto their every touch.

On the surface of things, that sense of burden has been a more natural fit for Bradley, whose role in the engine room of the team has almost given him the perfect opportunity to throw himself into his work. Altidore, by contrast, has found himself drawn into a couple of distracting soap-opera storylines, with his reaction in Atlanta and then most infamously with his red card against New York. That kept him out for the first leg in Columbus. And at one point in the second leg of the Eastern Conference final, it looked as if that extended hiatus -- with an international break in between -- might have fatally compromised his fitness, only for the striker to switch the narrative by scoring the decisive goal in the series, even as his coach weighed up whether he could continue in the game at all.

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