When Jozy Altidore left BMO Field on December 10, 2016, there was only one thing he and his teammates were fixated on.
Altidore gave Toronto FC an opportunity to avenge its loss from last season back in front of the boisterous red-clad supporters that packed BMO Field to the gills on Wednesday night for the second leg of the Eastern Conference Final and will again for MLS Cup.
The 28-year-old forward came to Toronto FC in 2015 after a tumultuous two years at Sunderland. No one knew what to expect at first, but Wednesday’s celebration of Altidore’s 60th-minute game-winner was a perfect example of how the relationship between star player and city has grown.
“It’s a big goal,” Altidore said. “I’m happy for it because the city means a lot to me. I came here and didn’t know what to expect and I’m sure a lot of people didn’t know what to expect of me. We were feeling each other out. I think it’s a beautiful city 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.”
Altidore endeared himself further to the TFC fans in Wednesday’s 1-0 win over the Columbus Crew as he gutted out an ankle injury to provide the club with the moment its been waiting for all season.
The U.S. Men’s National Team forward hurt his ankle in an awkward collision in the box with Crew defender Harrison Afful. As he received treatment, Altidore told the staff he’d stay out on the field as long as he could while his replacement prepared properly.
“I just needed to try to get some support on it so I didn’t move around too much,” Altidore said. “We taped it up, tried it out, but I just couldn’t really put any weight on it so I just wanted to give the chance for whoever was coming on to get some runs in and be ready help contribute and it all worked out in the end.”
After he returned to the field from receiving treatment on the sideline, Altidore combined with Victor Vazquez and finished coolly from the right side of the box.
“I’m not going to give you a number, but I was hobbling around,” Altidore said. “It’s tough too in these conditions when you get a knock like that in the cold. I wanted to give it a little bit of time for whoever was up next and then if a chance came down, I wanted it to fall to me and I did.”
What followed was an expression of emotion that summarized 12 months of hard work to get back to the place the Reds knew they belonged.
“From the moment we came back in the locker room after Seattle, that feeling it was awful,” Altidore said. “Right then and there preparation started for next year. I’ve never been around a group where the next morning we were figuring out when to start working out again, what to do, what to eat, everything to get ready for the season.”
Toronto didn’t just put focus on the postseason, it made sure the Supporters’ Shield belonged to it so the final would be played in Ontario for the second straight season.
“In a lot of ways it’s been a long year, but we’ve been obsessed with getting back to this game,” Altidore said. “We’ve put a lot into this year winning the Supporters’ Shield so we could get this opportunity.”
Altidore has had a longer year than many in the game, as he’s experienced the failure of the U.S. Men’s National Team in World Cup qualification, but Wednesday wasn’t about the USMNT.
“People keep thinking like I’m some kind of wounded animal,” Altidore said. “It didn’t only happen to me, it happened to a group of guys and a lot of fans. It is what it is and it’s disappointing, but we have to move on from it and learn from it and become stronger for it.”
“The national team isn’t broken,” Altidore said. “It definitely needs to be patched up in places and we need to do a better job as individuals, identifying players and all that, but there’s still some good things there. What happened in Toronto has nothing to do with the national team.”
Wednesday was about Toronto, the place where Altidore came after an excursion through Europe’s top leagues that unfortunately ended in a rough spell at Sunderland.
Wednesday was the final step to get Toronto back to the place it’s longed for ever since the Sounders hoisted MLS Cup on its home field.
When the final whistle sounds on Dec. 9, there’s only one acceptable outcome for the team that’s come together so perfectly.
“We feel like we owe it to the city and the fans, they came out and it was disappointing how it finished last year so it’s all there for the taking, it doesn’t matter who we play, we know we’re there to do one thing and win,” Altidore said.