The football media in North America went into overdrive this afternoon over a report that has been brewing for months. Now, the continent’s worst-kept secret is almost completely out of the bag. Everyone is expecting England international Jermain Defoe to sign with Toronto Football Club from Tottenham Hotspur. The striker has been unhappy for months because of his almost-permanent place on the substitute’s bench during league play (although he’s been well-used in Spurs’ cup adventures). TFC will end the speculation on Monday when they unveil the striker at a press conference. Here is Toronto FC trying to be coy on Twitter:
Monday, Monday, Monday! It’s not just a deal, It’s A Bloody Big Deal! http://t.co/pcA757A9ML
— Toronto FC (@torontofc) January 8, 2014
However, the “Big Deal” may be even bigger. There is word that Defoe is not the only big-name coming to Hogtown. Both SI.com’s Grant Wahl and ESPNFC.com’s Jeff Carlisle write that USMNT member Michael Bradley will leave Mediterranean shores for Lake Ontario beaches, for virtually the same reasons.
The pair will reportedly cost $100 M dollars, with Defoe earning an estimated $148,000 US per week, or about $7.7M US for the season. Other reports say Bradley’s salary is on the same street, not including the $7M-$10M that TFC will pay AS Roma for the midfielder. All in all, it’s a lot of coin for a club worth only $120M. There is also the small matter of the salary cap, and having to fit in four Designated Players into three spots: Defoe, Bradley, Gilberto, and Matias Laba, who looks to be the odd-man out (ironically, considering all the hype and hurdles that surrounded the Argentine’s signing last spring). But that’s for the accountants to work out.
What you do have to admire is the gusto with which the club is making changes. No doubt, this is down to the arrival of new Maple Leaf Sports Entertainement CEO Tim Leiweke. The former Anshultz Entertainment Group boss revamped the sports landscape in Los Angeles, in a way that benefited both the product and the bottom line. That appears to be the motivation here as well.
Defoe would be TFC’s first really big soccer “name” who, despite sitting out much of last season, still has some love to give. He’s only 31… not exactly a player ready for the elephant graveyard that is often Major League Soccer. It will be interesting to see if he and Gilberto become the club’s starting strike force, although with the wages they are on, you would expect that formation to be a no-brainer.
Meanwhile, Bradley adds much-needed grit in the middle of the park. He’ll be joined in the midfield by Canada’s best-ever player, Dwayne DeRosario, who gets unveiled by the club tomorrow. The changes are radical… but radical changes are needed. After seven seasons, Toronto FC has never made the playoffs. That is offensive to a fan base that was amongst the league’s most vocal and loyal until they swallowed almost a decade worth of disappointment. With this in mind, the club has acted boldly, even going so far as to delay season-ticket sales so they could show off their newest acquisitions.
The moves are basic sports business wisdom: the win column is full of dollar signs. However, it’s more than that. Leiweke knows that sports fans want heroes. This is especially true in Toronto. How else do you explain the Danny Dichio phenomenon, a journeyman who came here and became bigger than he ever was in Europe? You only have to look at the Toronto players who have been idolized by the faithful: the Maple Leafs’ Tie Domi and Wendel Clark, Roy Halladay for the Blue Jays, the Raptors’ Alvin Williams. Toronto loves their blue-collar players; call it a product of the city’s Scottish Presbyterian roots.
So sure, Toronto FC supporters want to win. But even more than that, they want players they can get behind and build mythologies around. Defoe, Bradley, DeRosario: those are Toronto’s kind of players. Now let’s see what they can do on the pitch, come March.