Jermain Defoe may not be joining teammates Michael Bradley or Julio Cesar in Brazil for this summer’s World Cup, but there’s no doubting that his eye for goal places him firmly in the upper echelon of strikers across the soccer-playing world.
That was made abundantly clear just 12 minutes in on Saturday as the former Tottenham Hotspur forward finished a personal week to forget with a stunning strike to put Toronto FC in front and well on its way to a largely comfortable 2-0 win over the rival New York Red Bulls. Substitute striker Luke Moore scored on his Major League Soccer debut in second-half injury time to lead TFC back to .500 on the season (4-4-0) in Major League Soccer.
Defoe’s goal – his fifth in all competitions this season - can’t undo the anguish caused by England manager Roy Hodgson’s decision last Monday to omit him from the provisional 23-man squad, but it did give him a measure of satisfaction, no matter how small.
“Obviously it does you know,” said the man with 19 international goals to his name. “It’s only normal after disappointment to try and prove people wrong and just to remind people that at the end of the day this is what this is what we are doing and I think we did that today.”
The other thing Toronto showed at BMO Field on Saturday is that assuming Defoe doesn’t get called up to cover for injury before the tournament starts on June 12, TFC should be able to stay in the hunt for the playoffs until the return of Bradley and Cesar after the World Cup. In their places, both Bradley Orr and Joe Bendik enjoyed solid outings, in particular Orr, who has shown an ability to step in to cover any position across the back line, but never until now in the midfield.
His presence was crucial as stabilizing influence in the middle of the park, most notably in neatly dispossessing an opponent before showing a cultured touch with his right foot in playing Defoe through for the opening goal.
“We just needed some balance,” said TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen of his choice to move Orr further up the field. “We were always going to the get the chances at BMO with the quality of players that we have up top. And I just thought we needed that defensive balance that kind of screens [Thierry] Henry and [Bradley] Wright-Phillips, so nothing can really get into their feet as much and they might have to go long a bit more and I know our guys are really good in the air and read the game well.
“It was a defensive move that was hoping to be a kind of offensive move. But Brad amongst many was superb and played really well.”
Toronto certainly came out of the gate all guns blazing, in particular Defoe, who could well have had a first-half hat trick on another day. But on the other side of the ball it was a 45 minutes to forget, and must have made for painful watching for Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke as his team mustered just three attempts on goal. Walking down the tunnel at half-time, the second-year head coach told a TV reporter that his “team was sloppy all over the field.”
He clearly demanded more from his team at half-time, and his squad certainly put forth a better effort after the interval, out-chancing the home side 5-4 over the remainder of the game, though Henry and Co. were unable to find a way past Bendik.
“It seems like when we get our backs against the wall, we come out and play and play a little bit better,” said New York midfielder Dax McCarty. “We don’t understand why we come out and start so poorly and when you are on the road, the last thing you want to do is concede an early goal and give the home team confidence.
“Obviously, they did not do too much after the goal but it was more of a battle than anything. That’s the kind of team Toronto FC is, they battle, they defend well, they are organized and get guys behind the ball to win it back.”
The visitors should have been tied things up just after the hour mark, as an inviting cross from Henry evaded both Lloyd Sam and Bendik – filling in for a flu-ridden Cesar – and fell to the league’s leading scorer, Bradley Wright-Phillips. With nine goals already to his name this season, including two hat tricks, the son of former Arsenal legend Ian Wright should have simply stroked it into the back of the net, but could only balloon the ball over to the relief of the home fans.
“It is part of the game,” Henry said diplomatically of the miss. “Bradley has scored many times since the beginning of the season and if he scored it could have changed the game but at the end of the day, Toronto FC won 2-0.”