All the stars have arrived. Now the work can really begin.
Jermain Defoe practised with Toronto FC for the first time Monday, and declared himself “100 per cent” healthy and keen to start when the club opens its Major League Soccer season on Saturday in Seattle.
“It’s been a long time talking about it and stuff, so to actually get over (to Canada) and put my boots on and start playing, training. . . it’s good,” Defoe said. “It feels good. Obviously a little bit strange when you first come in, but the lads have been fantastic. Good training session. I feel sharp. So yeah, happy.”
The 31-year-old striker had been battling a nagging hamstring injury, and didn’t play in what would have been his farewell game for Tottenham Hotspur on Feb. 27 at White Hart Lane.
Toronto coach Ryan Nelsen said he’ll wait and see how quickly Defoe adapts to his new teammates this week before deciding if he will start.
“Hopefully,” Nelsen said. “We’ve obviously got to get him up to speed with everything, but if he’s fit and raring to go it will be hard to turn down a player of that quality.”
Some two dozen journalists turned out to Toronto’s training ground just north of the city to watch the club’s biggest star practise. At one end of the pitch, the five-foot-six striker in electric-blue cleats took turns with Andrew Wiedeman and fellow newcomer Michael Bradley firing shots on Toronto’s goalkeepers. Defoe shook hands with his teammates, he applauded their efforts.
He then dropped to the pitch for a series of crunches, and was the last player off the field.
Nelsen practically scoffed when asked how Defoe did.
“He was awful. He’s done,” the coach said, prompting much laughter.
“Again, he came in on Saturday, so we just have to be careful, just with the artificial field and a flight,” Nelsen added. “He’s still got that goofy smile, and still enjoys it in the back of the net. That’s all I’m worried about.”
Defoe missed Toronto’s off-season due to commitments to Tottenham and England. He was the last player to arrive among a group of key off-season acquisitions that included American Michael Bradley, Brazilians Gilberto and Julio Cesar, and Dwayne De Rosario, who’s back in Toronto after three seasons with New York Red Bulls and D.C. United.
“To see (Defoe) in the locker-room this morning, now it’s like, alright we can start now,” Bradley said.
Gilberto, who has been slowed by a quadricep injury, believes it won’t take long to develop chemistry with the England striker.
“Now that everybody is here, we’re able to connect, get the chemistry working together as a team, and hopefully within the week we’ll be ready to go,” Gilberto said through an interpreter. “I think the chemistry will work right away, Toronto has got no time to wait.”
Defoe left Spurs with 143 goals to his credit, behind only Cliff Jones (159), Martin Chivers (174), Bobby Smith (208) and the legendary Jimmy Greaves (266) in the club record book. He was sidelined by the hamstring injury when he said his farewell to the fans at White Hart Lane late last month during halftime of a Europa League match against FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk.
Defoe was on the bench for England’s friendly against Denmark last Wednesday at Wembley but didn’t get a chance to earn a 56th cap in the 1-0 win over Denmark.
He said “obviously” it would help if he had participated in Toronto’s pre-season, but added that “hopefully in training they will understand how I play, and vice versa, and it will be OK.”
Defoe was asked if he had concerns about playing on the artificial turf Saturday in Seattle, and he said that even practising on artificial turf might take some getting used to. Toronto’s indoor training is on turf, and with no warm weather in sight, it remains to be seen when the team can head outdoors to the pristine grass practice pitches.
“Obviously it’s not something I’m used to, to be honest, and even training today, it was the first time in years where I’ve actually trained on this kind of surface,” Defoe said. “But again, I suppose it’s something you’re going to have to get used to. And you can’t really make excuses because it’s the same for both teams. Same for all the players. It’s something you get used to, I suppose it’s just part and parcel to travelling away and playing on these kind of pitches.”
Nelsen said the artificial pitch at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field may determine who plays and for how long on Saturday.
“You get the travel, and then you get, not just an artificial field, it’s a bad artificial field. It’s not like this one,” Nelsen said. “It’s like playing one-and-a-half. . .one-and-three-quarter games in terms of damage to your body. So we’ve got guys who are healthy but just don’t have that hardness of fitness under them, which is a concern.”
This past Saturday, New York held Thierry Henry and Jamison Olave out of the Red Bulls’ opener versus the Whitecaps on the turf in Vancouver.
Nelsen cautioned it may take some time for the newcomers to develop on-field chemistry, but pointed out the pedigree of his players will help hasten the process.
“There’s no magical formula, it’s not like switching on a light,” the coach said. “But when you’ve got good guys, good character, and good winning mentality, they want to learn. And everybody knows their roles. The right back on this team knows what the strikers are doing, and vice versa. So when everybody knows everybody’s jobs it comes quicker.”
Defoe said he has no concerns about getting to know his new teammates.
“Obviously it’s important around the training ground trying to get to know each individual and how they play,” he said. “But I suppose off the pitch is important, getting to know your teammates, because you become a family. So I think that’s important, but that’s obviously that’s something I’ll do around the training ground.”
After the flurry of off-season signings, Defoe and Nelsen shoulder lofty expectations from fans and a front office gunning for the team’s first playoff appearance.
“The way I deal with it is, we’ve got a great bunch of guys, they’re all hardworking, they all want to win, we’ll be very well-organized, and we’ve got players that can turn games,” Nelsen said. “So do I worry at night when I go to bed? No, of course not. It’s because of those reasons. You’re either going to win and your’e going to lose, but what I can tell is all the variables and all the stuff that happens amongst a team I’m really happy with. So I can sleep at night very, very well.”
Defoe, who has scored 19 goals for England, is also hoping to earn a spot in Roy Hodgson’s World Cup squad. His competition includes Wayne Rooney and Danny Welbeck of Manchester United, Daniel Sturridge of Liverpool, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez of Southampton and Andy Carroll of West Ham.
“Obviously it’s at the back of my mind, but first and foremost it’s important to concentrate on your club, and make sure your form is good,” Defoe said. “As a forward you get judged on scoring goals. I think that’s on my mind first and foremost, and then we’ll see what happens with World Cup.”
England has three friendlies left before the World Cup — Peru at Wembley on May 30 before games in Miami against Ecuador and Honduras