Cometh the hour, cometh the man.
In the shape of Jermain Colin Defoe, Toronto FC has at long last found a true alpha male to lead the pack. With 60 minutes showing on the digital scoreboard at the north end of Toronto’s BMO Field on Saturday, the former Tottenham Hotspur striker did exactly what a frenzied sellout crowd of 22,591 had turned out in force in the spring chill to see, slotting home the only goal in a 1-0 victory over D.C. United.
Compared to the pair he bagged in Seattle a week prior, which were the natural byproduct of the best part of 15 years he spent honing his craft playing in the English Premier League, his third goal in two Major League Soccer games was about as complicated as the kind of training exercise he did as a London schoolboy.
With highly rated Brazilian striker Gilberto making his TFC debut after sitting out the season-opening win in Seattle with a leg injury, Defoe now has a strike partner capable of drawing considerable defensive coverage by virtue of his pace and rapier-quick instincts.
So when Gilberto tested United goalkeeper Bill Hamid - who Defoe later described as “amazing” - on the hour mark and all United defender Bobby Boswell could do was to tamely clear the rebound across goal, Defoe was on hand in acres of space to coolly roll the ball into the net.
Though Boswell later said Gilberto slid into him as he was trying to clear, Defoe was just happy to get the win for the fans, and credited them for keeping his teammates focused on getting the victory.
“Unbelievable. From minute one the stadium was rocking,” he said afterwards. “It definitely helps the team, lifts all the players and I suppose we owed it to the fans to get a victory today.”
To the majority of those onlookers, the goal had been coming, with Defoe always looking the man most likely to do the honours. He registered four shots of his game-high seven shots in the first half, hitting the post with one and being denied by some smart Hamid saves on other occasions.
As the scorer of 143 goals for Spurs, the London club’s fifth-highest scorer of all time, the England international’s credentials are readily apparent for all to see, and his three goals have now led to Toronto winning its first two games of an MLS season for the first time in the club’s eighth season of existence.
While the pitch was awful – “As bad as I’ve ever seen in the MLS,” according to D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen - having been buried under a tarpaulin for much of the Ontario capital’s interminable winter, Toronto set about its task slowly against the only team to finish below it in the Eastern Conference last year.
“Some of the counter attacking we did in the first half was good,” said TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen. “We just couldn't finish it off. Of course, the field’s not great but that's no fault to the groundsmen. I blame God for that. For the winter he's given Toronto.”
After a slow start, confidence gradually started to ebb through the lineup as the likes of Michael Bradley, Alvaro Rey and Jackson started to press in the attacking third. The first sign of understanding between the new-look strikeforce almost paid dividends after 20 minutes, but Defoe could only fire at Hamid from an inch-perfect ball from Gilberto, and Bradley should have done better than scooping over the crossbar with the rebound.
The American international thought the pair showed promise in their first game together up top.
“I thought they were both really sharp,” Bradley said. “They both worked their movement was really good. I thought as far as playing off of each other they did a really good job. You only have to look at the goal to see. Gilberto makes a great little run and is in on goal and Jermain is right there with him and when the keeper makes the save and Jermain's right there. I think those two are going continue to get better and better.”
In the home side’s net, Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar was rarely tested – D.C. mustered just two shots on target throughout the 90 minutes – but it was the play in front of him that really steeled Toronto to grab all three points. Steven Caldwell’s burgeoning relationship with Canadian international centre-half and TFC Academy graduate Doneil Henry was also on display once again as the pair helped keep D.C. off the scoresheet. The 33-year-old TFC captain says the understanding with his 20-year-old young protégé will only get better as time progresses.
“It's a pleasure playing beside him,” Caldwell said. “I think we complement each other well and hopefully we can keep getting better and better and obviously clean sheets are important so it's a real bonus to get one today.”
Former Toronto FC captain Dwayne De Rosario, who came on for Gilberto in the 63rd minute, had a good chance to add an exclamation point to the victory in the 70th minute, but his shot was deflected wide.
The party atmosphere spilled out of the stands and onto the field in stoppage time when a fan ran on to the field whirling a towel around his head, but with everyone else counting down the seconds to victory nobody seemed to care, and the final whistle blew moments later as fireworks fired into the sky behind each goal.