MAJOR LEAGUE – Jermain Defoe and the Toronto FC revolution
Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe enjoyed a dream start to life in Major League Soccer on Saturday, bagging two goals during Toronto FC’s 2-1 victory over Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field.
The 31-year-old stole the show in an encounter that also saw US international Michael Bradley make his Toronto debut after returning to the MLS from Roma in a $10 million deal in January, and provided proof that the Canadian side may well be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Defoe surprised many when he took the decision to quit White Hart Lane for the MLS in January, with some suggesting the record $10 million move would end any realistic hope the striker had of making Roy Hodgson’s England squad for the 2014 World Cup this summer.
The player has strongly denied this however, insisting the switch would kickstart a career that had begun to stagnate during his time in North London, and pointed to the fact that David Beckham continued to play a key role for England following his move to MLS side, LA Galaxy, in 2007.
For Toronto, the victory over Seattle marked the start of a season they hope will prove to be their most successful since joining MLS in 2007, and gave them their first win over Seattle since a 2-0 triumph in April 2010.
Bankrolled by its owners, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), Toronto have enjoyed something of a revolution in the close season, with a number of key signings joining the club ahead of the new campaign. Having finished the previous three seasons with one of the worst records in MLS, the club have embarked on a ambitious rebuilding plan in recent months, bringing eight new players into the squad while 12 went in the opposite direction.
The club spent $20 million on Defoe and Bradley, while Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar was also signed on a loan deal in January from English Championship side Queens Park Rangers. The club proved to be one of the most active in the MLS during the moths preceding the new season, giving supporters some much-needed optimism heading into, what will be, Toronto’s seventh MLS campaign.
One of the key figures behind the Toronto FC revolution has been MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke, the man responsible for taking David Beckham to MLS in 2007. Leiweke spent more than 17 years at Los Angeles-based sports group AEG, who are the main investors behind both the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, before taking over his current role at MLSE last year.
Since then the company, which also controls NHL side Toronto Maple Leafs and the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, have gone about addressing the problems that have made Toronto one of the worst performing clubs in the league. There is no shortage of funds available either – in 2008 MLSE were valued at $1.5 billion.
Poor performance and management have seen a relatively high player turnover at Toronto, something which MLSE now hope to change with investment in club infrastructure and branding. Leiweke doesn’t shy away from the suggestion that MLSE are trying to build a new “super club” in Toronto that would challenge the popularity of the league’s biggest sides, saying they wanted to be “internationally recognised as a top club.”
The acquisition of Jermain Defoe was part of that strategy, linking the England international up with his former Tottenham teammate Ryan Nelsen, who is head coach. The New Zealander has been in Toronto since January 2013, but endured a frustrating debut season as his side won just six of their 34 regular season games.
Things promise to be different this term however, with the club finally able to attract the big-name players needed to both challenge in the league, and increase supporter attendance at their home stadium, BMO Field. Whether, this is enough to bring immediate success is unclear, however, the long-term future of the club looks healthy.
One thing is clear however, in Defoe Toronto FC have a player who will score goals at any level. Should he steer clear of injury and build on the solid start to his fledgling MLS career, there is no reason why England cannot also benefit from his decision to move across the Atlantic.