TORONTO -- After hearing Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley showered with derision at recent away matches, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney savoured the hometown love shown to his U.S. stars Wednesday night.
Loyal servants to their country, they have combined for 250 caps and 58 goals. But since the failed U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign, the two have been targeted with constant boos and abuse south of the border.
Toronto fans, however, have drawn them closer to their heart. And the love affair escalated in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final.
Both players had key roles in the 1-0 win over Columbus Crew SC that sent Toronto to the Dec. 9 MLS Cup final against either the Seattle Sounders or Houston Dynamo.
Bradley stopped a goal in the first half. And an ailing Altidore, playing on a bum ankle after a Columbus defender fell on him, scored one in the second half.
The sellout crowd of 30,392 at BMO Field loved both moments. So did Vanney.
On Thursday, the Toronto coach recalled how Bradley -- making like Usain Bolt -- ran down Justin Meram to make a saving tackle as the Crew forward prepared to take a shot in the 21st minute.
"I think maybe 15 seconds later the crowd is chanting 'Michael Bradley.' What a special moment for him to have that support," said Vanney.
"I know they know they have it in our stadium but when you get it like that, it's a reminder and a special thing. I don't know if he heard it or not because he's so immersed in the game. But for me, I heard it just on the periphery of what I was doing. I thought he needs something like that and it's a great thing for him.
"And Jozy (the) same by getting the goal. Whenever he puts those moments in, where he's just bigger than everybody, I think everybody appreciates that. And those guys, they're loved up here regardless. And I think honestly they're loved down there (in the U.S.), they're just scapegoats right now in the moment.
"I think they appreciate that and they know that they have this city and the fans behind them."
Altidore carved himself into local lore by shrugging off his rolled ankle -- which had required treatment on and off the field -- to complete a delicious give-and-go with Victor Vazquez for the decisive 60th-minute goal.
Goalkeeper Alex Bono started the play with a long boot downfield. The ball went to Sebastian Giovinco, who held off two defenders and then backheeled it to Altidore. He dinked a short pass to Vazquez who paused to allow Altidore to create space and then fed the burly forward who beat Zack Steffen with a right-footed shot from the edge of the six-yard box.
The ball in the net, the ankle pain was forgotten as Altidore ran to the corner flag pumping his fists. Soon the big man was swallowed up in a ball of teammates as the crowd celebrated. He limped off the field eight minutes later.
After the game, Altidore -- while downplaying the U.S. World Cup qualifying hangover -- opened up about the goal and his appreciation for the Toronto fans.
"It's a big goal, I'm happy for it because this city means a lot to me," he said. "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.
"And I think it's a beautiful love story because I fell in love with the city and I think the fans have fallen in love with me. I hope it's the last club I play for."
On Thursday, Altidore did not speak to the media but reported for duty moving slowly and with a limp.
"He's doing OK. They're treating him," said Vanney.
"We'll see over the next few days but it's going to be tough to keep him back," he added. "I think the (medical) guys will get him there, I think he'll be ready to go."