Anyone wanting to see exactly what Toronto FC has acquired in the shape of Jermain Defoe was given a timely introduction on Saturday. With Defoe’s long-time club, Tottenham Hotspur, clinging to a 1-0 victory heading into the last 20 minutes of a game against Crystal Palace – TFC fans need no reminder of how that particular scenario often plays out – the England international, who came off the bench just before the hour mark, showed the canny nose for the net that has seen him bag 19 goals for his country in 55 appearances.
Although slightly offside, Defoe needed just four touches to dink his way past the Palace defender before poking the ball past the despairing dive of Julian Speroni in the opposition net. The goal effectively killed off the game and virtually assured new Tottenham manager Tim Sherwood of all three points, calming the nerves of the 36,102 in attendance at White Hart Lane.
That level of clinical finishing has been virtually non-existent at BMO Field for much of Toronto FC’s seven-year history. While bright spots such as Dutchman Danny Koevermans showed good ability to find the net, he was in the latter stages of his career – he was 33 when he arrived in Toronto – and he was often either injured or too out of shape to provide the cutting edge up front that Canada’s original Major League Soccer club has sorely needed.
Defoe will be unveiled Monday as a sprightly 31-year-old, and while he’s certainly diminutive at 5-foot-7 in height, he’s never struggled to stay at his fighting weight. Given the four-year contract he’s signing with TFC, Toronto is certainly banking on Defoe being able to import his elite goal-scoring touch to MLS, and the numbers that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns TFC, is investing in the striker are certainly a reflection of their faith. An initial transfer fee of between $10.8- and $14.4-million is reportedly being paid to Tottenham, while the player himself is set to cash in with an annual salary of around $8.3-million. For that, Toronto receives a player who has scored 143 goals in 363 appearances for Spurs, and who is one of just four players to score give goals in an English Premier League game.
But this signing is about more than just the goals. Defoe brings an instant injection of credibility to MLSE president Tim Leiweke’s mission to turn around the flagging fortunes of the club, yet to make the playoffs heading into its eight season. His instincts for the game, and ability to be one step ahead of the defence, should allow him to be an instant success at the MLS level. His whippet-like pace should allow the Toronto FC frontline to terrorize opposing defences, even when it’s not Defoe with the ball on his foot, and will allow others, in particular fellow newly signed designated player, Gilberto, to capitalize in front of goal. TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen will certainly need to reminder of what the Englishman can achieve, having played both with him and against him in the EPL for a number of years.
But Defoe will also be counted on to bring leadership to a locker room that has too often been divided by internal politics. Soccer is in some ways the ultimate team game, where everyone needs to play a part for the 11 players on the field to be successful. That has long been lacking in Toronto, and while Defoe’s reputation may prove intimidating to his lesser-salaried teammates at first, his easy-going demeanour and ability to turn chances into goals should help bridge that gap, most importantly of all on the pitch.