Bright Dike doesn’t believe he is the odd man out in the new-look Toronto FC.
With the Reds’ off-season additions of forwards Jermain Defoe and Gilberto—both designated players—you’d be forgiven for thinking that, as striker who joined the team last summer, Dike might struggle for playing time in the upcoming MLS campaign.
But Dike, 26, feels he has a lot to contribute to the Reds’ cause in 2014, most notably his power and strength—he boasts an imposing six-foot-one and 220-pound frame, and has remarkable pace for his size. And even though he’s behind Defoe and Gilberto on TFC’s depth chart up front, Dike has a valuable role to play on this team.
"Competition is good. Defoe is a guy I can learn from. We’ve added quality players, and I can make them look better and they can make me look better," Dike told Sportsnet.
"I bring energy to the team, and athleticism," he added. "I’m good in the air, have speed, and I can hold up the ball. Even my touch will be better this year—it’s something I worked on in the off-season."
Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA’s Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.
Acquired in a trade with the Portland Timbers last August, Dike went on to score one goal in seven matches (five as a starter) for TFC. Those statistics don’t sound all that impressive, but they don’t tell the entire story of a player who has dealt with major knee problems for most of his three years in MLS.
He showed plenty of promise in the few appearances he made for Toronto in 2013. These days the knee problems are behind Dike, he says he’s fully fit and he promises to show his full potential in 2014.
"This is the best I’ve felt in a long time. I’m really excited about this year because I feel great, I’m playing well," Bike said. "My mobility is good, I had a good off-season to work on some things, so I’ll surprise a lot of people this year."
"Fans only kinda saw me play last year but not when I’m 100 per cent and ready to go. The best is yet to come."
Dike’s future has been a hot topic of discussion in recent weeks. Published reports linked Dike with a number of European clubs while he trained in Europe this off-season. Coach Ryan Nelsen also recently admitted that he’s received trade inquiries from other MLS clubs about Dike.
Dike is unfazed by the speculation, and maintains he is dedicated to TFC.
"I don’t pay attention to that. At the end of the day you just try to play well and if you have attention from other clubs, that’s a good thing. It means you’re playing well. But I love this team. Toronto is a great city and this is going to be a great team this year. I want to be here," Dike stated.
Dike speaks with genuine excitement—as though he’s a kid on Christmas morning waiting to rip open the presents—when asked about his expectations for TFC this upcoming MLS season. The additions of Defoe and Gilberto, not to mention American midfielder Michael Bradley, have transformed Toronto into a playoff contender. But for Dike, making the playoffs isn’t enough.
"They’ll push this team to the next level. Don’t be surprised when we’re winning a lot of games. This is going to be a good team, and everybody needs to know that and be ready to not only get to the playoffs but do well in the playoffs," Dike said.
"I’ve seen this before with Portland—going from complete opposites in one year. I think that’s going to happen here, too."
The upcoming MLS campaign is just one reason why Dike is so excited about the future, as the stocky forward has hopes of playing in this summer’s World Cup in Brazil.
Although born in Oklahoma, Dike is eligible to play for Nigeria through his parents, and made his international debut for his adoptive country in a friendly in 2012 and was called back into the squad for the second leg of the Super Eagles’ crucial World Cup qualification playoff match against Ethiopia this past November.
Dike didn’t see any action against Ethiopia, but he did score his first official goal for Nigeria two days later in a friendly against Italy at Craven Cottage, home of Premier League club Fulham.
"Oh man, I was at a loss for words at the end of the game. It was one of the best feelings I’ve ever had," Dike recalled. "To see the level of play, how brilliant some of these guys are on the ball—like Andrea Pirlo—it was unreal. Playing in games like that gets you thinking and gives you an idea on how to improve and it makes you better as a player."
His solid performance against the Azzurri did not go unnoticed.
"Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo came up talk to me after the game and told me I played really well," Dike said. "That gave me so much confidence going forward.
"Plus I traded both of my jerseys with Mario Balotelli and Daniele De Rossi. They’re coming up to me—imagine! Montolivo came up to me and asked me for my jersey but I couldn’t give it to him. [laughs] I’m sure he didn’t even knew who I was before the game."
Despite the performance against Italy, Dike is not guaranteed a spot on Nigeria coach Stephen Keshi’s World Cup roster. But the TFC forward said he talks to Keshi on a regular basis and likes his chances.
"He’s been very encouraging. He tells me things to work on and what I’ve been doing well. Last camp when well for me, and I’m in good standing at the moment," Dike offered.
Not starting for your pro team usually hurts your national team aspirations, especially in a World Cup year. But Dike doesn’t see it that way. He views his current situation as a chance to prove himself at TFC, as well as earn a spot on Nigeria’s World Cup roster.
"Obviously starting is great but you just can’t be starting and playing okay soccer—you have to be playing really well. That’s the most important thing, no matter how much time you’re getting. You have to make the most of your chances, and that’s what I plan to do in Toronto so I can go to the World Cup for Nigeria."