With one-fifth of its MLS schedule crammed into 28 days in July, Toronto FC players could be forgiven for wishing that Wednesday’s friendly match with England’s Tottenham Hotspur was another time.
Even former Spurs striker Jermain Defoe, the man of the moment whose transfer to Toronto prompted such strengthening of ties between the two clubs, is keeping the BMO Field friendly in perspective.
“There’s no points to gain, but it’s going to be nice seeing my old teammates and the staff,” he said recently. “Beforehand, we’ll have a laugh and a joke, but I suppose when the whistle goes, then you do your job and try and win the game.”
Asked about the timing of the fixture, Defoe was a little blunter.
“Obviously you could say it’s a game that we don’t need,” the English star said. “But at the end of the day, what can you do as players? We just get on with it. It’s important to, I suppose, stay professional. You’ve got to do your job. And if we’ve got to play, we’ve got to play. It’s not going to be as serious, I can’t imagine the tempo’s going to be too high. But we’ll still try to win the game. You still want to have that winning mentality, that every game you play, you try and win.”
Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley, who had a brief stint on loan to Aston Villa in 2011, sees the bigger picture.
Major League Soccer, in its 19th season, needs the respectability it garners from associating with – and doing well against – marquee teams from established leagues.
“The reality is still that these games are important for the league,” said Bradley, an American who was a member of AS Roma when the Italian side defeated Toronto FC 4-1 on a preseason tour last summer.
“Certainly the timing isn’t the best, and in a month now where we’re playing a lot of games and now that you throw in a few injuries, it’s easy to look and say that it’s not the perfect day to be playing a friendly. But still when you look at it from the other side, it’s a great chance for our younger players and really for every guy to have 45, 60, 90 minutes against one of the best team in the Premiership.”
Added Bradley: “It’s important that when we have these opportunities, we play well and we play in a way that represents the league in a good way.”
The Seattle Sounders did just that Saturday, tying Spurs 3-3 before 55,349 at CenturyLink Field in the opening game of Tottenham’s tour and first outing under new manager Mauricio Pochettino.
The Toronto friendly is part of the deal that brought Defoe to North America. Tottenham and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment agreed to a four-year agreement that will see Toronto FC and MLSE “provide promotional and branding opportunities, experiential activities and advertising, broadcasting, social media and digital rights across all of MLSE’s properties and media platforms.”
MLSE also agreed to sell Tottenham Hotspur FC official merchandise at its retail outlets and support the THFC Official Canadian Supporters Club. An MLSE official wasn’t sure if Spurs were hawking TFC goods on the other side of the Atlantic, saying some details still had to be worked out.
For Spurs, the partnership is a chance to get a further toehold in North America while linking up with an established sports ownership group that knows the local scene.
Tottenham is just one of nine English Premier League clubs to make North America part of its preseason this summer. Arsenal, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Swansea City and West Bromwich Albion also worked trips across the Atlantic into their training schedule.
The world is their market these days.
Deloitte’s annual review of soccer finance, released in June, predicts that the commercial revenues of Premier League clubs will exceed £1-billion ($1.83-billion) in 2015-16.
Defoe, 31, spent about 11 years in two stints with Spurs, scoring 142 goals in a combined 362 appearances in the Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup, UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League matches.
He ranks fifth on Spurs’ all-time scoring list and is the club’s top scorer in Europe with 23 goals.
For many of his MLS teammates, Wednesday’s game is a chance to see how they stack up against the players they see weekly on TV.
“When you rub shoulders against them, it’s kind of a bar to see where you are,” said Toronto manager Ryan Nelsen. “That’s how I used to liken it when I was a young guy, to see what the difference is. Can I match it with these guys? Once you get a bit older, once you play alongside these guys, you realize that they’re human, they make the exact same mistakes as we all do out here and they’re very similar. The gap’s not as big as everybody thinks.”
For 21-year-old defenders Doneil Henry and rookie Nick Hagglund, the Spurs game is a chance to show what they can do.
“Every time I can play an EPL team it really does mean something,” said Henry, who got a taste in the off-season when he trained with West Ham United. “Because that’s where you want to be at the end of the day – [the] top-flight.”
Nelsen looks to take full advantage of the unlimited substitutes allowed Wednesday by calling up players currently on loan to the Wilmington Hammerheads. “We’ll use everybody,” he said.
Tottenham, meanwhile, has left some players at home, including Togo international striker Emmanuel Adebayor (malaria), Brazilian midfielder Sandro and Romanian defender Vlad Chiriches (back).
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