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Analysing the Blood Splatter, After the Bloody Big Deal: The Departure of Jemain Defoe



A year ago the blood rushed through the collective circulation of Toronto Football Club [“TFC”] supporters when they heard that their soccer club’s 2014 Major League Soccer [“MLS”] roster would feature U.S. international Michael Bradley (in his prime) in its midfield and Jermain Defoe, one of the English Premier League’s [“EPL”] career best strikers, in the attacking zone.

As TFC’s owner, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment’s “Bloody Big Deal” [“the Deal”] media campaign was designed to redline heart rates and blow up EKGs for TFC soccer like jumper cables to the chest in a scene from Cranked. In 2014, the team would ultimately feature Bradley, Gilberto and countryman Julio Cesar, the EPL and Brazilian international goalkeeper.

Defoe was the headliner. He was the definitive “poacher” and finisher. He was (and remains) in the top-15 for career goals in the EPL. In his EPL season prior to joining TFC, he was a more efficient, double-digit goal scorer than Sergio Aguero, Daniel Sturridge, Luis Suarez and Robin Van Persie.  Tottenham players carried him off on their shoulders as his time on the pitch ended for that club and the fans gave him an ovation.

Defoe was the hemoglobin in “the Deal”.

No doubt, Defoe received significant compensation to come across the pond. But as a sporting institution, one feature not in deficit for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment [“MLSE”] is its cash reserve.  While compensation level clearly featured in recruiting Defoe to be TFC’s premier designated player, undoubtedly relationships and connections were fundamental and maybe even critical to making it work.

TFC’s manager Ryan Nelsen, still quite fresh from the pitch served as a personal conduit to Defoe. They’d played together in the EPL and goodwill seemed to exist between them. Defoe’s EPL club Tottenham Hotspur and TFC found value in a trans-Atlantic football alliance featuring cooperation on soccer matters. Tim Leiweke, MLSE’s and Chief Executive Orchestrator had the big vision. He was a “soccer guy”. He loved the game and brought that love to the table in his prior work with the Los Angeles Galaxy, a foundational and winning MLS franchise. None of this would have been lost on Defoe and all of it had to feature in his decision to make the jump.

Leiweke fronted and backed this soccer fantasy. He proclaimed Defoe an ambassador for the club and the game. He guaranteed an inaugural playoff appearance for the Reds as part of “the Deal”. Playoff-starved TFC fans, particularly “Day 1” season ticket holders, and Torontonians generally looking forward to anything that might make “the meeting place” a little bit less of a loser sports city were ready to buy in.

The season started and wow, reality was matching the fantasy. Defoe scored early and often. The club played reasonably well and managed to be in playoff position at an advanced stage of the season.

Then, of course, the thing anyone should have expected to happen was … termination – for the head coach and most of his staff. With Nelsen’s dismissal, gone was the man who reportedly acted as a first point of personal contact in making Defoe part of “the Deal”, after a season plus on the job and while he had the Reds unfamiliarly poised to make the playoffs.

Nagging injuries were creeping in and periodically taking Defoe out of the line up but he still managed to score  11 in 19 games and survive pissing contests with Gilberto (recall their alpha-male altercation over who would take a free kick in TFC’s June 27, 2014 contest against the New York Red Bulls).

Obviously, the next thing Defoe should have expected was for Leiweke, the purveyor of the Bloody Big Deal who had been on the job for about 30 seconds, to initiate his exit from TFC, MLSE and Toronto period.

Yes, Defoe was anointed an ambassador for the club but to him or anyone else paying attention, it had to be worrisome that the president who appointed him had chosen to defect and the general with whom he had marched had been deposed in the midst of winning the conflict. Without them, in view of all the circumstances, the whole thing could start to feel like a massive bait and switch: rather than being the chief diplomat of a rising power on planet MLS, he was stuck carrying the flag of a failed state bent on being a soccer backwater.

Yet upon Defoe’s announced departure back to the EPL to play for Sunderland, vitriol and venom were served up hot and fresh just for him on sports radio. Commentators from James Sharman to John Molinaro to Sid Seixeiro referred to Defoe as dishonest, a “carpetbagger”[1] and “d***he bag”, respectively.

They spoke about Defoe as though they were pissed at him for insulting their mothers or defaming their sisters. At the very least, they spoke like people exceedingly comfortable with figuratively defecating on someone while his back is turned on the way out the door or whose outrage was disconnected from the known facts.

If more to the story exists, they should tell it. Otherwise, one might give greater weight to the portrait of Defoe painted by former Spurs manager Tim Sherwood, a member of the coaching staff during Defoe’s years with Tottenham, who said, among other things, that his former player “was never a moment’s trouble around the training ground and you could see in the sessions that he had that hunger to score goals. He would train hard and was a great finisher in the small-sided games we played. It was no accident that he was primed and ready to go come matchday.”

It may be that Defoe used some bargaining power to aid his departure from Toronto. But what he signed up for no longer existed shortly after his arrival. With even a modest respect for time, he had to have known that if he gave what he had left in the tank to TFC, there was no way to predict what they would do with it and who would be making that decision.

This time around, the transaction involving TFC, Defoe and the EPL isn’t that big a deal. But some opine that it might be an excellent January transfer window signing for Sunderland and a real chance for U.S. international and former MLS star Jozy Altidore (the player TFC effectively obtains in exchange for Defoe) to reclaim his scoring touch back in a North American comfort zone.

For Defoe, and probably all others involved, it seems like the right deal.


[1] Quite a loaded term, see: