TORONTO — For the first time in a very long time, there is genuine hope for Toronto FC.
The additions of English forward Jermain Defoe and American midfielder Michael Bradley—officially unveiled as the club’s newest designated players during a Monday press conference—signal a new era in the history of the troubled Major League Soccer franchise.
After seven losing and playoff-less seasons, the Reds have been instantly transformed from league laughingstock to a contender. And while it’s premature to call TFC a lock to win the MLS Cup this upcoming season, a post-season berth looks well within reach thanks to the additions of Defoe and Bradley.
No exact dollar figures for the deals were confirmed by TFC, but Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment paid millions in transfer fees and salaries to lure Defoe away from English side Tottenham and Bradley from Italian outfit AS Roma.
"To acquire a star midfielder like Michael Bradley, seen by many as the top American player in the world, alongside Jermain Defoe, makes this a groundbreaking day for Toronto FC and for Major League Soccer," said Tim Leiweke, CEO of MLSE.
Not only are they marquee stars, but Defoe and Bradley are players who can help TFC in a big way on the field.
Historically, scoring has been one of TFC’s major problems—the Reds have routinely been one of the most offensively inept teams since joining MLS in 2007. Last season, Toronto scored 30 goals in 34 games, tied for the second-worst offensive record in the 19-team league.
Defoe, 31, should help to remedy TFC’s scoring woes. The West Ham United academy graduate has a track record as a proven scorer in the Premier League while playing for Tottenham, Portsmouth and the Hammers, and has 19 goals in 54 appearances for the English national team. He has 143 goals in his two stints with Spurs.
Even though the arrival of Roberto Soldado at Spurs this season limited Defoe’s playing time in the Premier League, he played regularly in the UEFA Europa League and recently became the club’s all-time leading scorer in Europe with 23 career goals. Nine of Defoe’s 10 goals this season have come in either the Europa League or the Capital One Cup, with his latest coming in Spurs’ 2-0 Premier League win over Crystal Palace on the weekend.
"I feel at home already," Defoe said. "As players, all you want to do is put your boots on, get out there and let your football do the talking...I feel blessed and honoured and I'm looking forward to it so much."
The addition of Bradley is not only a major coup for Toronto FC, but also for MLS. Most stars who leave Europe for MLS and a high-paying DP contract are the wrong side of 30 and in the latter stages of their careers—see David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Marco Di Vaio.
Bradley, at 26 years of age, is entering the prime of his career, with his best years still ahead of him. TFC is getting a stud central midfielder who can dominate games with a stunning mix of physical power and deft distribution.
Bradley has seen his playing time decrease at Roma this season, and in a World Cup year he needs to be playing regular first-team soccer. A player of his calibre could have easily moved to another big European club, but he chose to return to MLS—where he began his career as a 16-year-old—after talking to Leiweke.
"I have never been more excited, and more motivated, for any challenge in my career," Bradley said. "What they're trying to build here is really special, something really unique and different from anywhere else in MLS and North American soccer.”
Defoe and Bradley are at the top of their games, and their presence in Toronto’s starting lineup— combined with the signings of Brazilian forward Gilberto and returning captain Dwayne De Rosario— make the Reds one of the strongest teams on paper in MLS.
Years of losing, constant turnover of players and managers, and comical mismanagement by MLSE have reduced the Reds to the point of irrelevancy in the Toronto sports markets, and made the franchise the butt of jokes from around the league.
Nobody is laughing now, though. The snickering has stopped, as Toronto FC has undergone an amazing metamorphosis this off-season, thanks in large part to the ambition and direction of Tim Leiweke.
Since coming to Toronto, Leiweke has made rebuilding TFC one of his top priorities, and so far he’s been able to put his stamp on this time by firing former GM Kevin Payne, throwing his unconditional support behind sophomore coach Ryan Nelsen, and splashing big money on transfer fees and salaries to lure Defoe and Bradley away from two big European clubs.
Now it’s up to the players to perform on the pitch.
"Why can't we be great?" Leiweke said. "We didn't win anything today, but we created a great opportunity."
Defoe will remain with Tottenham until March 1 before joining TFC, while Bradley is expected to part in the club’s pre-season preparations. Toronto FC opens the 2014 MLS regular season on March 15 away to the Seattle Sounders.
Watch videos: Defoe still in mix for England | What Defoe, Bradley bring to TFC | Hero's welcome for Defoe in T.O. | TFC’s offer that Bradley couldn’t refuse | Bradley pumped for TFC project | Sportsnet goes 1-on-1 with Bradley | Sportsnet goes 1-on-1 with Defoe