Bradley, Altidore's historic success at Toronto more than just a U.S. subplot
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 have 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 put into 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 they are forced to try to juggle the duties of a tough postseason, with an added layer of symbolism and scrutiny that has 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, most infamously, his red card against New York. That kept him out for the first leg in Columbus. 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 whether he could continue in the game at all.
Bradley, for his part, held down the midfield against Columbus, despite being in thankless isolation during the first half due to Crew SC's formation switch. Then again, anyone wanting to boo him for the national team situation might want to remember that "thankless isolation" has been a fairly apt description of the position he has ended up being asked to cover for much of this joyless World Cup cycle.
Small wonder that club soccer has seemed like a respite for both men under the circumstances. Toronto's roster-building has been rightly celebrated for its studied attempt to balance the team well beyond its designated players, with its blend of youth and MLS experience. But there's no doubting that this is a team built to exploit the strengths of its key men and enable them to do their job.
The one-two that put Altidore in on goal against Columbus was played off Victor Vazquez -- a decisive creative foil for Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco this season. When Columbus threatened to wrest control of the series in the second game, Greg Vanney was able to throw on the underrated Marky Delgado alongside Bradley to stabilize the team and give the captain the support he needed to lock down the game rather than react in firefighting mode.
Bradley and Altidore, and Giovinco for that matter, are paid handsomely to play a role for their team, and it's inevitable that some of that role has a symbolic significance in terms of how their performances represent and exemplify the success of the Toronto FC project as a whole, in good times and bad. But Toronto has worked hard to share the load -- and the credit -- during the long, slow haul from perennial MLS also-ran to stacked powerhouse sweeping all before it in 2017.
This is not Danny Koevermans' infamous "worst team in the world" of 2012, the "Giovinco-plus-10" team of 2015 or even the "BMO Field playoff phenomenon" of 2016. It's perhaps the best MLS team ever, on the verge of history. It certainly deserves to be far more than a U.S. subplot.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.