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Jozy Altidore was the hero the Eastern Conference final needed

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The tactical battle needed a moment of inspiration.

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Jozy Altidore felt pain in his injured ankle the entire time. When he slotted home one of the biggest goals in history, it was there.

Even as the adrenaline took over and he sprinted towards the corner flag, teammates draped all over him, yelling “this is my house!” and pointing to the turf, the pain remained.

Ten minutes earlier, Altidore was clutching his ankle on the BMO Field grass, knowing that his night was going to end early after colliding awkwardly with Harrison Afful. He looked like he could barely walk mere moments before sending Toronto FC to the MLS Cup final.

“Everyone should applaud him for the effort he gave, the fact that he kept playing on for as long as he could,” said Toronto goalkeeper Alex Bono. “It’s honourable, it’s heroic. Those are the words I would use to describe it.”

It’s just as well, because a hero is exactly what the 2017 Eastern Conference final needed. For 180 minutes, Toronto and the Columbus Crew engaged in a tense tactical battle with a number of near-misses, the majority of which came from the Crew. Only one player was able to find a breakthrough.

The way things played out makes a lot of sense in hindsight. With half a month to prepare for one another - such is the fun of the drawn out MLS Cup playoffs - this was always going to be a series determined by one or two big moments. It was the first time since 2012 that only one goal has been scored over a two-legged series.

To Altidore’s teammates, it didn’t come as any surprise that he was the one who delivered. After all, he was certainly the MVP of last year’s playoff run with five goals and four assists in six playoff matches.

“When you are standing in the tunnel on nights like this and you look behind you, when you see Jozy it’s a damn good feeling,” said Michael Bradley. “Because you know what he’s going to be about, you know that he’s going to give you everything he has.”

He’s the kind of player that Toronto sports fans have traditionally fallen for: the Doug Gilmour-esque lunch-pail hero who combines skill and will. Last night was the latest chapter in what Altidore calls a “beautiful love story”.

“I fell in love with the city and I hope the fans have fallen in love with me,” said Altidore. “I hope it’s the last club I play for.”

MLS: Eastern Conference Championship-Columbus Crew at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Love hasn’t been a word used much in Altidore narratives lately. He has missed almost half of the 2017 playoffs so far, the majority of which was due to suspension for his role in the tunnel shenanigans against the New York Red Bulls.

Add to that all of the fallout from the United States missing the 2018 World Cup and it’s been a tough couple months. But he is more than happy to move on, and is hoping everyone else will too.

“People keep thinking I’m some kind of wounded animal,” he said after a reporter brought up the United States debacle during the post-game press conference.

The wounded part, at least, is accurate. Altidore says there is swelling on his ankle and that he will be getting it assessed in the next couple of days ahead of next Saturday’s final. He still looked a little bit hobbled as he left the stadium last night.

Any concern, however, that he might miss the big game was quickly dispelled.

“I’m playing in the MLS Cup final,” he said bluntly. “It doesn’t matter what the ankle is, you’re not taking that game away from me.”

The road to the 2017 MLS Cup final has been bumpy and winding for both Altidore and Toronto, but now that they are just one game away from glory their resolve seems to have doubled.

No injury, suspension or other unexpected circumstance has been able to stop them yet.