TORONTO — Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley met for the first time more than 13 years ago, crossing paths by chance as Bradley was wrapping up his stint at the U.S. Under-17 national team residency program and Altidore was trying out to become a part of the same setup. Little did they know their careers would intertwine over the next dozens years, first for country, then for the club that helped them make history.
"I just remember this guy, he was exactly what he is now," Altidore told Goal as he stood next to Bradley in the locker room after Saturday's MLS Cup win over Seattle. "He had more hair, but he was just so serious, so professional, and he was just 16 years old. When I met him, from that day we clicked. We went on to play with the Under-20s and we've been friends ever since."
The longtime U.S. national team standouts have played in World Cups and the Olympics Games together. They've won Gold Cups together, including one this past summer. What neither had won before was an MLS Cup, something they came together three years ago to try and change.
That change came Saturday, with Bradley dominating the midfield and Altidore scoring the game-winning goal to help TFC win its first MLS Cup title — and become the first MLS team to win three major trophies in one season, with the Canadian Championship and Supporters' Shield.
Altidore was awarded MLS Cup MVP honors after scoring in the 67th minute, but his effusive praise of Bradley made it clear who he saw as having the biggest influence on the night.
"Tonight it was another Michael performance," Altidore said. "Everything. He stifled them. Before they even looked he was there. I was telling guys on the bench it was unbelievable. His bald head was everywhere. He was all over the field. It's crazy because you come to expect that, fair or not.
"You come to expect that flawless performance, and it was another one for the books for him. A game where he covered so much ground, got the team out of trouble. It's Michael Bradley, it's what we've all come to expect, one of the best players in the history of our program, and this league."
It was Bradley who first convinced Altidore to consider Toronto, and he even adjusted his contract to help TFC make it work financially.
"When he first told me about Toronto, I'll never forget it," Altidore said. "We were in (Jacksonville) playing against Nigeria, and we were getting ready for that game and he said, 'You should come to Toronto.' It started off as a joke, but I started to think about it and we talked all the time about it.
"For me, it was about coming here and making sure we won this thing. Because I know all the pressure, whatever, that was put on him when he first came here. I wanted to come here and take that a little bit away from him, and help him win here. So to be here, and be able to win with him, in the fashion which we did, is great."
Altidore also revealed that his original plan was to sign with the New York Red Bulls, the club where his professional career began, but when that fell through, he knew that taking Bradley up on his long-standing offer was the way to go.
"I had Portland, Toronto and New York Red Bulls," Altidore said. "Obviously I was close with Mike, but New York was my home, right? That was obviously something that looked good for my family, but the people (at the Red Bulls), I forget who was in charge, said they wanted to go in a different direction. The decision was easy at that point. I couldn't go home, so I had to go somewhere there was a new challenge.
"I didn't know what to expect, but I came here and from day one these people embraced me with open arms. It was unbelievable and it just made me want to give that much more for the city and for the team."
For Bradley, Saturday's triumph was a culmination of a journey that began when he and Jermain Defoe were announced as major signings in 2014 by a TFC side determined to turn things around after years of terrible results and dwindling attendance totals. Defoe left after a year, but his departure helped clear the way for Altidore to arrive in 2015. They helped TFC end their playoff drought, but that season ended with a disappointing playoff loss to rival Montreal.
A year after the heartbreaking penalty shootout loss to Seattle, Toronto finally made the climb from league laughingstock to model club — and best team in the history of MLS.
"There were some dark years along the way, but the people who stuck with it, who continued to believe, who continued to identify with the club, nights like this are for them," Bradley said. "We want to play and represent them in a way that makes them proud, that makes them leave here and feel like they were a part of something different. We all feel like that and we hope they do too."
Saturday night ended with an emotional celebration by Toronto's long-suffering fans, and by Bradley and his teammates, who lifted an MLS Cup title that TFC supporters would have considered a pipe dream four years ago. It ended with Bradley and Altidore basking in the glow of a job done, and one they did together more than 13 years after their fateful first meeting as teenagers.