Defoe says he’ll be healthy for TFC opener

Toronto FC striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley comment on training, getting used to the different pitch and getting ready for the start of the MLS season.

TORONTO – Jermain Defoe wanted to keep going.

At one end of the field during Toronto FC’s practice on Monday, Defoe and teammates Andrew Wiedeman and Michael Bradley fired shots over and over again on the team’s goalkeepers, trying to outdo one another. Defoe had the upper hand, the majority of his blistering attempts on goal finding the back of the net.

This drill went on for about 10 minutes before assistant coach Jim Brennan called an end to it. Brennan insisted they had to move on to something else and Defoe obliged, but you could tell he was somewhat disappointed. It felt good to kick the ball in the back of the net, and Defoe didn’t want to stop.

It’s that kind of intensity that will serve Defoe well in Toronto, and could see him play in TFC’s Major League Soccer season opener Saturday in Seattle against the Sounders.

Defoe, 31, is coming off a nagging hamstring injury while finishing up his stint with Tottenham. After arriving in town on the weekend he trained with TFC for the first time on Monday. But the English striker said he feels 100 percent fit and sharp, and wants to play in Seattle.

“There are no problems,” Defoe told reporters after Monday’s practice. “I’m ready to play. I feel good.”

Coach Ryan Nelsen didn’t rule out using Defoe in a starting role versus the Sounders.

“Hopefully. We’ll see. We’ve obviously got to get him up to speed with everything but he’s fit and ready to go, [so] it would be hard to turn down a player of that quality,” Nelsen stated.

As one of the club’s three high-profile players signed to designated player contracts this off-season, the pressure is squarely on Defoe’s shoulders, especially with expectations so high following seven consecutive losing campaigns by Toronto.

And it doesn’t help matters that he’s only started practicing with his new teammates a mere five days before the Reds’ season debut. The pre-season preparation has been less than ideal, but Defoe doesn’t seem too concerned.

“It helps the more you play with the players. But in training now, they’ll understand how I play and vice versa, and it’ll be okay,” Defoe offered.

Brazilian Gilberto, another new DP, has only trained sporadically with the team due to a quadricep injury. And even though he’s only met Defoe, he’s looking forward to forging a partnership with the Englishman.

“I think the chemistry will work right away. We have no time to wait. As soon as we start playing, I’m good to go,” Gilberto said through a translator.

As for Nelsen, he maintains that patience will be needed before Defoe fully fits into the team and develops an understanding with his new teammates.

“He’s fit but he doesn’t know the system or the players. So it’s going to take a bit of time,” Nelsen cautioned. “There’s no magical formula. It’s not like switching on a light. It takes time.”

Defoe says he’s ready to go, but the fact that Saturday’s game takes place on CenturyLink Field’s artificial surface could give Nelsen pause for thought to start Defoe and other players who aren’t quite match fit, including Bradley, defenders Mark Bloom, Justin Morrow and Bradley Orr, and midfielder Alvaro Rey. Nelsen described the playing surface at Seattle’s home stadium as one of the most punishing pitches in MLS.

For Defoe, it will be something he’ll need to adjust to, as four of the 19 stadiums in MLS feature artificial surfaces. As a long-time player in the English Premier League, he’s accustomed to playing on natural grass.

“It’s not something I’m used to, to be honest. Even training today, it was the first time in years where I actually trained on (an artificial) surface. But I have to get used to it, and you can’t really make excuses because it’s the same for all of the players,” Defoe said.

The long travel for road games will be another adjustment he’ll have to make now that he’s in MLS.

“It’s not going to be an issue,” Defoe stated. “You can’t really make excuses.”

With so many TFC players not at full match fitness, Nelsen quipped that he’d like a few extra weeks to prepare. But Toronto already had a bye week—the majority of the 19 teams in the league played their season openers this past weekend—and faces a tough test in the Sounders, one of the better home teams in MLS.

“Saying that, I can’t wait for the game on Saturday,” Nelsen stated.