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No, booing Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore doesn't achieve anything

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

The USMNT failed collectively, yet fans have compounded their ire onto two players.

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There are many aspects to the idea of home-field advantage, some of them dubious, as numerous high-seeded, subsequently eliminated, teams can attest. But in the second leg of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference final, Toronto can add one to the list: in front of thousands of your own fans, it’s hard to hear an individual player being booed by opposing fans.

What started in Atlanta on the final day of the regular season, became a full-on rendering of Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley as cartoon villains, over the course of the playoffs. Where other U.S. men’s national team players of their generation have somehow been allowed to slide into a quieter ignominy in the wake of the World Cup failure, Bradley and Altidore have been kept in the public square to be held accountable. Or shamed.

I was at Red Bull Arena for the first leg of the Eastern Conference semi-final, where Altidore and Bradley went from former-MetroStars-turned-feared-opponents to scapegoats for a nation’s disappointment. Every time they touched the ball, they were booed by the New Jersey crowd, and as they came off the field Altidore in particular looked especially angry at the nature of the heckles from individual fans.

He would play exactly one half of the next two games, after a half-time red card in the second leg saw him suspended, ensuring that whatever happens in these playoffs, he will not be remembered for the remorseless scoring machine he was in last year’s campaign up to the final.

Bradley meanwhile, has been ever-present, and again in Columbus in the first leg, ever-booed. By the time Toronto faced Crew SC, whose fans might have been expected to have other things on their mind, the booing of Bradley had become reflexive as much as emotive — a ritual straight from the song sheet rather than the heart.

And as it did all along, it felt cheap and arbitrary.

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There’s always something unfair about the blaming of any individual player for a team’s failings. The nature of team sport should preclude that in the first place. Of course, we’re not above celebrating the geniuses of the game for their outsized contribution, so by extension it might seem logical to single out those perceived as the weak links.

And that’s to assume there’s ever a moral justification for how Bradley and Altidore have been treated. In the course of a game, there’s an understandable emotional reaction to a perceived villain who puts in a hard tackle or has a hot-headed reaction. But the idea that somehow Bradley and Altidore, in particular, should from this point forth carry the weight for systemic U.S. men’s national team failures well beyond their sphere of influence, is just ugly and absurd.

Yes, these are high-profile players whose decisions to return to MLS were emblematic moments in the history and dynamics of the Jurgen Klinsmann experiment. And it’s fair that lucrative transfers made possible by the pairs’ cultural capital and profiles on the national team should invite scrutiny of their subsequent national team performances, especially after Klinsmann himself suggested that those performances would fall off away from the benchmarks of European leagues. On that basis, you could claim Bradley and Altidore owed their country a little more than others — being high-profile U.S. players under Klinsmann gave them an assumed value they were able to extract personal gain from.

The trouble is, perhaps, that too often the critiques of that, right through to the booing during the playoffs, have focused as much on the players’ symbolic presences as their technical ones.

Altidore has continued to score goals, fight for position and generally do what he can for the U.S. He was no more or less culpable than any single other player (or coach) within the U.S. set-up for the team not reaching the World Cup. But the outsized symbolism of what his particular wave of reverse-migrant internationals represents has been seized on and amplified in a moment where fan anger, however it manifests, is being celebrated as “increased accountability.”

Dale Zanine-USA Today Sports

Dale Zanine-USA Today Sports

And despite the obvious flashpoints with Altidore, Bradley has been the more polarizing presence in the national team, since his return to MLS — though again, the most vocal criticism tends to come when he’s seen as emblematic of a lack of ambition or pace in the national team, rather than in the constant covering, recalibrating, and reshaping of the team he is personally constantly enacting off the ball.

God knows, there’s a lowlight reel to be put together of some of Bradley’s distribution in recent years. But I don’t know how you also capture that type of player’s sense of duty to his team and his role. And ultimately, I don’t know how you make Michael Bradley accountable for the lost generation of players coming through after him, whose shadows he tried to make into substance.

And Bradley feels a deep responsibility as a leader that goes far beyond the game. On everything from marriage equality to speaking out on the treatment of immigrants, he has made pointed social interventions that have not been about grandstanding, but which have come with a definite sense of his own responsibilities.

The U.S. team he is part of failed to make the World Cup. And there is anger and emotion around that. I’ve been part of that — asking how the system could be improved, challenged, and yes, “held accountable” — but I can’t justify being angry at an individual player.

In part, that’s because as a writer, the accountability includes myself. I’ve spoken with several players and media members in recent weeks about our part in the shape of things — about helping change some of the conversation in a way that further benefits the game, or scrutinizes those officially charged with doing so. I’ll continue doing so. And I’ll try to do it as honestly and fairly as possible, even as the fallout from the World Cup failure impacts the employment prospects for myself and colleagues I respect.

But I am also a longstanding fan, whose first exposure to supporter culture came growing up around the English game There’s some soul-searching to be done there, too.

I get really uneasy when I hear anyone evoking negative aspects of fan culture in other countries as some culturally necessary corollary of technical development — basically the idea that yelling at another human is all part of the same necessary hothousing that includes sensational tabloid headlines. That’s the process that demands Glenn Hoddle play David Beckham in a World Cup, then burns effigies of him when he picks up a red card in the same tournament.

It’s pathetic.

Booing Bradley and Altidore achieves nothing. And if this moment is meant to be about anything, it’s about looking at what can be done. Not emotionally punishing someone for what wasn’t done.

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