The boos were unmistakable. And so was their pattern.
On a warm October afternoon in Atlanta, the last afternoon of the MLS regular season, they rained down from every corner of Mercedes-Benz Stadium, from people of all shapes and sizes scattered amid a record-breaking crowd of 71,874. They drenched two men, and two men only, whenever they touched the ball. Two American men. Two American men drenched with boos precisely because they were Americans – and because thousands of others felt those two had let them down.
Dramatic failures retrospectively require villains, and no two players slipped more naturally into the role than Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley. Neither was singularly culpable in Trinidad. But both have long been polarizing figures, excessively championed by their supporters, unrelentingly criticized by their detractors. Shocking failure simply silenced the apologists, and amplified the critics. And amplified the boos.
It did not matter that Altidore and Bradley were about to complete the greatest regular season in MLS history. It did not matter that they would soon embark on a playoff run to a second straight MLS Cup. A week later in New Jersey, the boos morphed into much worse. They became “F— you Jozy” and “F— you Michael” chants. They became vile insults with religious undertones. Insults that Altidore called “classless.”
“Coming off the field, there’s a [fan] standing a foot away from me telling me I have no idea what it’s like to represent this country, that I didn’t die for this country, and I don’t deserve to be in this country because I don’t put my hand on my heart and I don’t sing [the national anthem],” Altidore said.
“I have no issue with the booing, and you feeling that myself and Michael and others are responsible for not qualifying for the World Cup. You’re right. It wasn’t the ‘F— you, Jozy.’ It wasn’t the ‘F— you, Mike.’ I have no problem with that. But when you start to attack people in different ways, when it comes to religion or patriotism, that’s what I meant by ‘classless.’”
But the unique story here is what happened next. Altidore and Bradley returned home. And they were embraced – have been embraced. Because back home, “Trinidad” is an island, not an infamous October night or a soccer match. Back home, Trinidad didn’t matter.