Jozy Altidore shrugs off ankle injury, delivers winning goal for Toronto FC
TORONTO -- Jozy Altidore knew he had to come off the field.
The ankle that he had injured at the beginning of the year had been hurt again when Columbus Crew defender Harrison Afful got tangled up with him. Altidore went down, got treatment, played and went to the sidelines for more treatment. He went back out to the field again hoping to just grind out a few more minutes.
"I just needed to try to get some support on it so it didn't move around too much," he said after the game. "We taped it up, tried that out, but I just really couldn't put any weight on it. So it kind of defeated the purpose of trying to stay on there. We'd be like a man down, so I just wanted to give the chance for whoever was coming on [for me] to get some runs in and be ready to help contribute.
"I knew if there was a play, if I can get a chance to make a play, then I wanted to be on the field for it. It all worked out in the end."
That it did. As the game reached the hour mark, Altidore received a backheel from Sebastian Giovinco, worked a combination with Victor Vasquez and fired past Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen to hand Toronto a 1-0 aggregate triumph and a return trip to the MLS Cup final.
The tension had been building in dribs and drabs at the start of the match, as the five-man back line trotted out by Crew manager Greg Berhalter flummoxed the TFC attack. The anxiety then increased 10-fold after Vasquez had his penalty saved by Steffen.
Toronto's attack had made little headway since. But the eruption of joy in BMO Field as Altidore's shot settled into the net shook the press box -- equal parts relief and primal scream. The striker then jumped into the joyous arms of his teammates, but he insisted there was no shot of adrenalin that made the pain go away.
"I felt it. I felt it the whole time, actually, unfortunately," he said of his ankle. "But these moments, this is what you live for."
These have not been the happiest two months for Altidore. As if he needed any reminders of the U.S. national team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, he's been booed and taunted on the road as a kind of penance. His goal will do little to change that, nor does it come close to erasing what happened, but Altidore insisted there has been no hangover for him, that he has compartmentalized the national team disappointment and not let that creep into his games for Toronto.
"People keep thinking I'm some wounded animal," he said. "[Not qualifying] didn't only happen to me, it happened to a group of guys and a lot of fans. It is what it is. It's disappointing, but you have to move on from it and learn from it and become stronger for it.
"The national team program isn't broken. It definitely needs to be patched up in places, and we need to do a better job as individuals, of identifying players, all that. But there's still some good things there. What happens in Toronto has nothing to do with what happened to the national team."
As much as U.S. fans don't want to hear it, what Altidore says is true. It's a professional survival mechanism that demands that players engage in selective amnesia. It has no doubt helped that Altidore plays his club soccer across the U.S. border -- Toronto's fans have long embraced him, his form for the U.S. national team having no bearing on the level of support he receives from his club. That can help the recovery process, and Altidore was pleased to repay the fans who have cheered him on.
"It's a big goal. I'm happy for it because the city means a lot to me," he added. "I came here, I didn't know what to expect. I'm sure a lot of people didn't know what to expect from me. We were feeling each other out. But it's a beautiful love story because I fell in love with this city, and I think the fans have fallen in love with me. I hope it's the last club I play for."
There has been love from teammates, too. Michael Bradley has been on the receiving end of jeers since that October night in Trinidad as well, but he has long been grateful to have Altidore by his side.
"When you're standing in the tunnel on nights likes this, and you look behind you, when you see Jozy, it's a damn good feeling because you know what he's going to be about," Bradley said.
"You know that he's going to give you everything he has. And on a night when it didn't necessarily come easily or simply, and in a moment when nobody would have thought twice if he had gone off, he found a way to keep going and make a big play for us. I'm so proud of him, so happy for him, and we're going to need one or two more the next week."
Given the state of Altidore's ankle, there are some doubts about his health for the MLS Cup final on Dec. 9 and what level he'll be able to play at. He doesn't have any, however.
"I'm playing in the MLS Cup final," he said. "It doesn't matter how or what the ankle is. You're not taking that game from me."
The chance to complete a Supporters' Shield/MLS Cup double is now in sight.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.