Defoe in T.O. – The Arrival
By Tom Oldfield
Over the course of my four years in Toronto, the collective jinx that has struck down the city’s sports teams has been a constant frustration, with regrettable trades, questionable effort and untimely injuries all sharing the blame. But Toronto FC and Jermain Defoe may be about to change all that.
First, the Toronto FC background: seven years in the MLS, a string of managers and zero appearances in the playoffs. Needless to say, over that time I have marvelled at the marketing genius with which the club tempts supporters to fill BMO Field, their home stadium, despite the instantly forgettable performances on the pitch. It’s not that the fans don’t appreciate the dire straits of the past few years (I have several friends who occasionally try to give away tickets during the season but can find no takers); it’s just a case of blind loyalty.
It’s against that backdrop that Toronto FC announced the marquee signing of Defoe earlier this year, instantly turning heads within the league and beyond. Understandably, this sparked joyous celebrations in Toronto – and, notably, a marketing campaign built around the slogan ‘It’s a Bloody Big Deal’, featuring adverts with football fans reacting to the news by spitting out their cups of tea in amazement. Nothing like a good stereotype.
And, as is the North American way, the hype has been off the charts ever since, with rapper Drake and NBA star LeBron James among those credited with shepherding the Defoe deal over the line.
Of course, it’s hard not to be sucked into the buzz, especially after Toronto FC landed US international midfielder Michael Bradley and Brazilian keeper Julio Cesar amid a frenzied few months of cheque book waving. I had Toronto FC as legitimate MLS Cup contenders in my season preview and feel good about that prediction.
Here’s why: one of the underappreciated flaws of the MLS is the limited execution in the final third – in part because defences are generally well-organised but equally due to average wing play and a scarcity of playmakers.
Time and time again, I fall for it, edging out of my seat in expectation of goalmouth action as a diagonal ball over the top releases a winger behind the back four. It is the kind of move that would frequently lead to at least a half chance in one of Europe’s top leagues. But this is where the MLS falls short – the move typically ends in a poor cross, slow recognition of the right pass or a wayward shot from an impossible angle. A clinical finisher who can create his own half chances is a priceless commodity in this league.
With Defoe, all kinds of options open up for Toronto FC, as he demonstrated on his debut at the weekend. Qwest Field in Seattle is renowned as one of the loudest, most intimidating stadiums in the league but the crowd was quickly hushed into silence as the former Tottenham striker struck with two clinical finishes inside the first 25 minutes. On both occasions, Seattle – forgetting temporarily that this was not just your typical MLS striker – paid the price for not closing Defoe down. Toronto FC clung on for a 2-1 victory, giving Nelsen reason to believe that the club’s luck is turning.
One game is a small sample size but that victory was a major statement of intent for this season – and it just adds to the excitement ahead of Defoe’s home debut this weekend against DC United. It promises to be an electric atmosphere as Toronto FC fans begin to allow themselves to dream of the playoffs.