“I’m well aware of our history. We have not built a tradition of winning here. But I believe you gotta dream big, and the challenge for us is, is how we go establish ourself as one of the premier clubs on and off the pitch in not just Major League Soccer, but the sport of football worldwide.”
“The Galaxy are successful because of Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan and David Beckham in the past 2 years. In Toronto we have not found that guy yet, or those guys yet.”
Those quotes were from a Tim Leiweke interview included in an MLS Insider video, named the “Travails of Toronto FC”. It was released in late 2013, after another poor Toronto FC season in which they missed the playoffs. Leiweke was the President of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, who were planning to make major changes to Toronto FC after years of despair. That being said, these big ‘rebuilds’ happened just about every year; TFC fans were getting used to watching a new team play just about every season with each new rebuild set to produce the results they wanted. After years of false hope, believing in the team began to feel like a waste of time.
Another rebuild was set to happen for the 2014 season. Leiweke promised big signings, just like how he had been able to acquire MLS legends like Beckham and Robbie Keane while the president of LA Galaxy’s ownership, Anschutz Entertainment Group.
He would pull through on his commitment. And boy, it was a Bloody Big Deal.
The front office had committed to signing world-class designated players and began to narrow down their search to players particularly from Italy’s Serie A and England’s Premier League. Names such as Alberto Gilardino, Samuel Eto’o, Fabio Quagliarella, and Jermain Defoe were all strikers heavily rumoured to potentially make a move to the team on Lakeshore Boulevard. But as time went on it became clear that Tottenham Hotspurs striker Jermain Defoe was edging closer and closer to becoming the club’s marquee signing. Eventually, on January 10, 2014, Jermain Defoe was announced as Toronto FC’s new star.
When Defoe had signed for Toronto, he was a 31-year-old English international who was one of the better strikers in the Premier League. He had played for the likes of West Ham United, AFC Bournemouth, Portsmouth, and Tottenham most recently, scoring 43 goals in 139 appearances in North London. He is currently (as of the time of writing this article) the eighth-highest goalscorer in Premier League history, having 163 of them to count. So he was a huge signing for both TFC and Major League Soccer as a whole.
Defoe wasn’t the only big name who would hit the pitch at BMO Field ahead of the 2014 season. AS Roma midfielder and USMNT captain Michael Bradley had signed with a similar attached transfer fee and for a similar salary (around 10 million USD transfer fee and 7 million USD/year). Young Brazilian striker Gilberto was signed a few months before to complete TFC’s DP collection. Even the starting goalkeeper of the Brazilian national team, Julio Cesar, was signed on loan from English side Queens Park Rangers. Somehow he didn’t account for a designated player slot even though he had the quality of one.
After the signings of those 3 new DPs, ads began to circulate on television depicting the signings of the players as a “Bloody Big Deal”. Jermain Defoe was the main feature of the marketing campaign, given that the 31-year-old had the highest-profile of all of those players by far. TFC’s front office had snagged possibly one of the biggest sets of signings in MLS history, and Defoe was the forefront of it. Even by today’s standards, these moves would send shockwaves through Major League Soccer, so the excitement among fans to see this team take the field come March was through the roof; metaphorically speaking of course, because BMO Field hadn’t had a roof installed at this point.
I was 10-years-old at the time. For my dad and I, it had become a bit of tradition to go to 1-2 games a season ever since the late 2000s or early 2010s — I really can’t remember. We were both the type of casual fans who would watch a few games a season and come back the next year to have no clue who we were watching since so many players moved on year on year. I remember going to a match back in 2012 where me and my dad knew absolutely no one because the squad had gotten shaken up so much. We spent that day cheering on players like Quincy Amarikwa, who was introduced to use after he scored for TFC in the game. We liked Toronto FC, but the team hadn’t fully claimed our hearts. But after we found out about the signings of Defoe, Bradley, Gilberto and Cesar, we had never been more excited to watch a soccer team in my short life and his longer one. We were hooked on Toronto FC.
Fast-forward to the first game of the season. Toronto was going to play against the Seattle Sounders, at CenturyLink Field. Seattle was and still is to this day a quality team, and this game was no exception. And in the seventeenth minute, Osorio put in a through pass directly to Jermain Defoe, who buried it in the bottom-right corner of the net. Then in the twenty-fourth minute, a Sounders player passed back to Defoe who sprinted onto the right side of the box and blasted the ball once again past Stefan Frei into the net. Defoe hada brace in his debut, leading the Reds to a 2-1 victory over the best team in Major League Soccer (they won the Supporters’ Shield that season). This was going to be their year (we thought), Toronto FC was finally going to make the playoffs.
Defoe would smash in another goal the next week after having a lively game at BMO Field against D.C. United. At the start of the season, he would score in most of the games he played in, making him one of the top strikers in the league. However, after the start of the season, his career with Toronto FC took a dive for the worst. It kicked off with his first hamstring injury that put him out for over a month. The injury itself wasn’t what spelled the end of TFC’s playoff chances that season, but it was what it foreshadowed: Defoe’s constant injuries throughout the remainder of the season that would severely hinder the team’s playoff chances. Now that doesn’t mean TFC had a terrible attack without him; they had signed Gilberto who began to get into goal-scoring form midseason after struggling to put one in the back of the net at the start. English striker Luke Moore also performed well with the time he was given. However, the team struggled to find a consistent run of form without their talisman striker’s abilities, poor tactics from Ryan Nelson, and an overall lack of leadership on the field. As the months went by it felt like the initial confidence that the players had once had, eroded as many poor results would follow.
The first time Jermain Defoe returned from injury, he ended up getting back into goal scoring form, poaching goals like he did just weeks before. An injury or two later and it began to feel like he wasn’t the same striker he was at the start of the season. Honestly, it didn’t feel like it was merely because of his injury, it felt like he just didn’t want to be in Toronto anymore. I remember even questioning if he was injured, or if he didn’t want to play and was faking it. The budding TFC fan that I was at the time didn’t like him anymore. I remember watching Gilberto and Defoe argue over who would take a free-kick in a game versus the New York Red Bulls, to which Gilberto won the battle and took it instead of Defoe, who was the typical free-kick taker. Gilberto ran up and kicked about the hardest free-kick I’ve ever seen in the back of the net. Defoe began smiling after Gilberto was celebrating his first-ever goal, and I was happy to see someone who wanted to stay in Toronto make a difference for the team.
On August 31, shortly after a 3-0 loss to New England Revolution, head coach Ryan Nelson was sacked with his assistants. Toronto FC had been on another poor run of form without Defoe once again, and Bezbatchenko decided to appoint TFC’s academy director Greg Vanney as the new head coach. As the transfer window was closing soon, Bezbatchenko stated that a decision would be made on Defoe within the next 24 hours, as multiple offers had been made for him (all rumours were teams in the Premier League). Although Defoe didn’t leave at the end of the day, it was clear — Jermain Defoe would leave Toronto FC.
As the Reds finished the season on a 5 game winless streak, they would miss the playoffs by 8 points, finishing in seventh place. Ironically this was one of their best seasons yet, which demonstrates how bad Toronto FC had been from 2007-2014. Defoe made 19 total appearances, scoring 11 goals and getting 2 assists — not a bad tally at all, but he barely scored for the entire second half of the season with his poor form and injury problems. His last goal was scored on July 26, 2014. In January of 2015, Jermain Defoe was out the door, moving to Premier League relegation-candidates Sunderland who would send Jozy Altidore and money the other way. The “Bloody Big Deal” era was over, and it was one bloody big mess.
How creative of me. It’s not like anyone has ever said that before!
Regardless of how his career panned out in the 6ix, I think it would be hard to argue that he wasn’t one of the best players to ever play for Toronto FC — it’s just that he didn’t play well for us. Defoe was a real poacher type of striker: he would sit in the middle of the park for most of the game, barely jogging, and when he would get fed he would sprint into the box and bang in a goal top shelf. He was incredible. As I began to dislike him more, I harped on him for how little he contributed outside of his finishing prowess, but looking back I appreciate his style for what it is. Many teams just need good finishers, and he was one of those players who was great at positioning, dribbling into the box, and finishing shots that many players couldn’t. He wasn’t some sort of Sebastian Giovinco skill-move pro, he was a quality poacher who is levels above the average striker in the finishing department. Given Defoe’s high scoring rate at the beginning of the season, he had the potential to become a Toronto FC legend, a Robbie Keane of Toronto FC.
After playing for Toronto FC, Defoe returned to the Premier League with Sunderland, as previously mentioned. He would play with them from 2015 to 2017 until they were relegated from the Premier League. At this time, he was one of the most invaluable players of the club, being described as “priceless” by his manager, David Moyes. He scored 34 goals in 87 appearances, making him one of the difference-makers who kept the now Football League One side up in the top-flight. Although a bid for Defoe was rejected in January 2017 from Bournemouth, he would make a return to the club on a free transfer in July of the same year (he had played for them last in 2001). He only scored 4 goals with Bournemouth but was able to get a goal in the next season to make it so that he had scored in 17 different Premier League seasons. He is viewed by many Premier League fans as a league legend. Shortly into the 2018-19 season, he would join Scottish side Rangers on an 18-month loan in January 2019. After having a very successful loan with them, he signed a pre-contract agreement with them to stay on permanently after the 2019-20 season and is currently still playing with them, with an agreement to become a coach for the club after his illustrious playing career. To date, he has scored 25 goals in 53 appearances for the reigning Scottish Premiership champions. Recently, he was named to be part of a 4 man caretaker team that would help lead the club while Rangers were searching for a manager to replace Steven Gerrard, who left to manage Aston Villa.
I thought on a separate note, it would be good to mention his relationship (while at Sunderland) with a young child named Bradley Lowery, who was terminally ill with Neuroblastoma. The bond the two formed was remarkable and gave me a different perspective of the person he is. Unfortunately, Lowery passed away on July 7, 2017, at the age of 6.
Over time, my view has softened on Jermain Defoe. When he played against us in a friendly after he left (with Sunderland), I absolutely despised him. I don’t think of him quite the same way anymore. Ultimately, Defoe pinpointed the reason for his fallout with the team being mainly because of his immense amount of injuries with the club. However, most (including me) don’t believe that point as many articles have been written saying that he was homesick, had trouble adapting to life in Canada, and didn’t particularly like MLS as much as he thought he would. The fact that he didn’t get called up to the 2014 World Cup squad probably had an impact as well — Defoe publicly expressed his disappointment after being left out. On the other hand, articles were suggesting that Jermain was not the majority of the problem, it was his mother who didn’t really like being in Toronto and in turn tried to broker deals with teams like QPR behind MLSE’s back, causing Jermain Defoe to want to leave given his mother’s immense influence on her son. Regardless, it appeared that he didn’t want to play with the team at least halfway through the season, and as a result, his poor performances and frequent injuries built-up animosity between him and the Toronto FC fanbase. It’s unfortunate how things ended, but that’s sometimes how things work out. We’ll never truly know for certain why he wanted to leave the club, but we do seem to have some indications as to his reasons.
To this day, he still talks positively about most of his experiences in Major League Soccer. Things didn’t work out, but he remains complimentary about the team and the league. Defoe was set to become the most significant signing since Thierry Henry, but his season capitulated as fast as Toronto’s season did. The “Bloody Big Deal” era will always be remembered for the failure it was, but it ultimately made me the passionate fan I am today, making me forever grateful that it did happen. If Jermain Defoe never kickstarted that era in TFC history, I may have never gained the interest I have in the team and the league that is so dear to my heart. For that reason, I am grateful to have witnessed this chapter in TFC history. It was one heck of a journey.