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TFC’s Jermaine Defoe
TFC’s Jermaine Defoe

MLS

First game of new season gives hope to long-suffering TFC supporters Add to ...

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.

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“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.

“But I think last year, we learned a lot from top to bottom of how the club is meant to be run, but we had a vision and we had a plan and we stuck to it no matter what was kind of thrown at us. And, obviously, we put ourselves in a position to bring in the kind of characters we’ve brought in, but in saying that, it makes it just as hard.”

But as far more experienced managers and coaches will tell you, dealing with the high expectations that come from assembling a talented group of players is a far more preferable situation to be in than the other side of the equation.

Steve Nicol, a Scottish international who won just about everything during a 13-year playing career with Liverpool in the 1980s and ’90s, has seen it from both sides. Like Nelsen, Nicol moved straight from the pitch to the manager’s hot seat and was unable to save Notts County from relegation in the mid-1990s, before eventually coaching against TFC during a nine-year spell in charge of the New England Revolution, a club he took to four MLS Cup appearances.

“The reason they’ve been bad is because they haven’t had good players,” he says of TFC from Bristol, Conn., where he is now an analyst for ESPN. “It really is about the players. If you have good players with good attitudes, then you’ll win games.”

Based on the team’s first win in Seattle, and just the second victory in a MLS season-opener, the current cast looks talented enough to finally make the playoffs. But then many Toronto Blue Jays fans, and so-called experts, had the Major League Baseball squad pegged to do the same thing a year ago, with online book maker Bodog installing Toronto as the 15-to-2 favourite for a first World Series title in 20 years.

Nobody needs reminding how that turned out, but for the record, Bodog currently has Toronto FC installed as the 9-to-1, sixth-favourite to win the 2014 MLS Cup.

Like the Blue Jays though, increased expectations are leading to increased activity at the box office.

Toronto FC season ticket sales – which are capped out at 17,000 this season – rocketed from around 15 per cent before the announcement of Defoe and Bradley to 92 per cent of the maximum within mere days of the big unveiling at Real Sports Bar and Grill in Toronto.

According to online ticket reseller StubHub, ticket sales for Saturday’s game have more than doubled from last year’s home opener, with a 150-per-cent increase since last Saturday’s season opener. (By way of contrast, the Blue Jays, who set sales records through the website for their home opener last year, have only managed sales of 35 per cent of last year’s total for their own opener, on April 4 against the New York Yankees.)

Those increased sales fold neatly into MLSE’s $120-million plan to increase the capacity of BMO Field, adding another 10,000 seats for TFC games along with a roof and the ability to expand the stadium to incorporate the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts and potentially play host to big events such as an NHL Winter Classic or a Grey Cup. (After gaining the approval of the executive committee earlier this week, that plan will go before Toronto city council next month for final approval.)

It’s all part of the grand vision by MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke, who helped set up a partnership with Tottenham through the Defoe transfer.

“This is almost a launching point for the brand to become bigger. Because MLSE has aspirations for the Toronto FC brand to be a global brand, not just a brand in Canada or in North America,” say Vijay Setlur, a sports-marketing instructor at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

“So this is all laying the foundation for growing the franchise as an international brand, all these elements, from star players to the expansion of the stadium and just the overall heightened media coverage and profile that the team is getting.”

But while Nicol says, “Winning is the deodorant of the game; it covers up all bad smells,” Setlur cautions while that may be true in the dressing room, it doesn’t always filter through to the marketing department.

“You can see that though the [Toronto] Raptors are a winning team, they’re not selling out the Air Canada Centre because all those years of losing have degraded the fan base somewhat,” he says of the seemingly playoff-bound NBA team, currently playing to 91.1-per-cent capacity through 33 games – a far cry from the Vince Carter years of almost blanket sellouts. “And the fact that the team doesn’t have a definitive star player, that drawing card that will get fans to the game whether the team is good or mediocre.”

Players such as Defoe, Bradley and Cesar – all three “nailed on to do well,” according to Redknapp – should ensure star power is not in short supply at BMO Field this season, and the goals won’t be either.

“You know, you can look at your team at the start of the year and you can say, ‘Yeah, Jermain Defoe, 20-odd goals,’” he says. “Other players you’ll say, he’ll get two, he’ll get one, and you won’t be far away. People who get one, two or three goals, they don’t suddenly go and get 18 goals.

“[Redknapp’s nephew Frank] Lampard gets 20 goals every year for Chelsea from midfield and that’s the way it works.”

But while goals are nice, it’s results that count, and in his quest to lead TFC into the playoffs for the first time, Nelsen is more focused on getting points on the board than balls in the net.

“Football, especially modern-day football, it’s really romantic to say that we’re going to keep the ball, create a bunch of chances and fairy dust and ponytails,” he says. “But the real truth is the majority of games won by the Man Uniteds, by the Real Madrids and Chelseas are grinds, they’re hard.

“They get up and they grind them out and good teams do that and that’s what you’ve got to do over a long, long, long season.”

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