As a former midfielder for the Seattle Sounders, Harry Redknapp might have warned his old team what it was in store for.
But as the manager of the promotion-chasing Queens Park Rangers, looking to return to the English Premier League at the first time of asking, Redknapp was too busy guiding his current employer to a 3-0 victory over Yeovil Town last Saturday to pass on a scouting report about one of his most famous pupils.
“Jermain Defoe will score goals,” the former West Ham United manager said last Thursday of a player he first signed at 15 for the East London club and has since coached at Portsmouth and Tottenham Hotspur. “If I had Jermain Defoe here at QPR, we’d be certain to get promoted.
“It wouldn’t be, ‘Will we get promoted?’ It would be a certainty because he’d come in and score goals every week almost, and that’s what Toronto are going to get – he’s just going to score goals.”
Defoe certainly left little doubt about that in last week’s season-opening victory in Seattle, firing home both of Toronto FC’s goals with his first two shots since leaving England at the end of last month and casting his lot with Major League Soccer. In so doing, he’s following in the footsteps of other former Premier League superstars turned North American soccer saviours such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry. None of whom scored twice on their own MLS debuts.
But while the very early returns have the England international looking like the “bloody big deal” TFC owner Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. promised when it originally lured him away from Tottenham in January, it doesn’t entirely salve the bloody big mess that has comprised much of TFC’s seven-year existence.
Entering Saturday’s home opener against D.C. United with a record over .500 for just the third time in franchise history, the excitement is palpable, the club’s 21,859-seat BMO Field stadium a sellout and the team roster almost completely revamped.
Lining up alongside Defoe will be American national team stalwart Michael Bradley, Brazil’s first-choice World Cup goalkeeper, Julio Cesar (currently on loan from QPR) and Dwayne De Rosario, back for a second go-round with his hometown team following an acrimonious divorce in 2011. Highly touted Brazilian striker Gilberto, another prized off-season acquisition, is aiming to be part of that group as he recovers from a leg injury.
But turning over a quarter of the roster also brings its own set of problems, problems entirely different from the litany of losses, coaching carousels and managerial miscues that have gone before.
“We look at the changes that have happened and we’re obviously excited about the names, but we’re very concerned with how the team gels and comes together for the actual season,” says Phil Tobin, president of the Red Patch Boys, TFC’s largest supporters’ group.
“It’s a long season that they have to play, and I think a lot of players underestimate the amount of travel and the actual hardship there is within the MLS with time zone changes. There’s a lot of rigour, whereas in Europe everything is basically a train ride.”
The task of getting everyone onto the same page will fall to former New Zealand captain Ryan Nelsen. Now in his second season as TFC manager, Nelsen gave Redknapp what the Londoner termed “the biggest blow of all-time,” when the Kiwi traded in his position at the vanguard of QPR’s ultimately unsuccessful battle to avoid relegation a year ago to make his first forays in coaching.
While Nelsen was fully prepared for the “short-term pain for long-term gain” of a season that comprised just six league wins while getting the club out of the salary cap mess he had inherited, even he is surprised by the speed at which the optics of the entire operation have turned around.
“As I said when I first got here, I didn’t really know how bad it was and I thought it would take a lot longer, I thought it would take a good two or three years to get out of this hole,” he says.