TORONTO—Jermain Defoe is gone, but he’s not forgotten in this city, and he’s certainly not forgiven.
Defoe received a frosty reception Wednesday night from the 14,025 fans inside BMO Field who witnessed Sunderland beat Toronto FC 2-1 in an international friendly. Jonathan Osorio scored early in the second half for Toronto, before Defoe netted twice for the English Premier League side.
Defoe started and played the full 90 minutes for the Black Cats against his former club, marking his return to the city since parting ways with TFC in January.
Toronto fans let Defoe know exactly what they still think of him, booing him in the pre-game introductions, then again the few times he touched the ball during the match, and after both of his goals.
“That’s part and parcel of football these days. I understand that there’s fans that won’t be happy (with me) but at the same time I’ll always appreciate the fans. I enjoyed coming back here. It’s a fantastic city. I really enjoyed the trip, and it’s a shame I have to go home so soon,” Defoe said.
Defoe’s kind words aside, it’s not hard to understand the fans’ contempt for him.
The English forward signed with the Reds to great fanfare—remember the “Bloody Big Deal” campaign?—but was limited to 11 goals in 19 matches in an injury-plagued 2014 MLS season. Even before the year was done Defoe was already pushing for a move back to the Premier League, and eventually he earned a transfer to Sunderland.
According to multiple sources homesickness, an inability to adapt to life in Canada, and MLS not living up to his expectations were the reasons why he wanted out of Toronto. Defoe took TFC fans for an emotional joyride during his brief tenure at the club, pledging his allegiance in public while behind the scenes he was scheming to arrange his exit. Had he simply been up front about his feelings, maybe we could all be a little understanding.
But he still refuses to come clean, and on Tuesday, Defoe fed a line of bull to local reporters that his persistent injury problems was why he wanted to go back to England. He also painted himself as the victim in this soap opera, explaining he felt turned on by the media and supporters who questioned his integrity and intentions.
Defoe also couldn’t help but let his natural arrogance come through, telling reporters that “I was at Tottenham for 10 years. It was my decision to come here. I didn’t have to.” Translation: “I’m too good for you guys. You should have been grateful I came here in the first place.”
Defoe’s return to Toronto was the major storyline Wednesday, but the details of the match still have to be told.
The low turnout led to a complete lack of atmosphere, and made you feel as though you were watching a bunch of kids kick the ball around in your backyard. The south end of BMO Field where the vocal supporter groups usually congregate was practically empty. With the hardcore fans choosing to stay away there was no traditional 24th minute chant of “Danny Dichio.” That’s how dead and soulless it was inside BMO Field.
It raises the obvious question: Why does MLSE insist on staging these friendlies? There’s clearly very little appetite for them among TFC’s loyal fan base.
With an important MLS game on the road this weekend Toronto coach Greg Vanney rotated his squad, giving starts to fringe players Jackson (at right fullback), Daniel Lovitz (left midfielder) and Robbie Findley (forward). Forward Jozy Altidore, who came to Toronto from Sunderland as part of the Defoe transfer, didn’t even dress. Vanney filled out his roster with TFC II players Jordan Hamilton, Alex Bono, Skylar Thomas, Chris Manella, Manny Aparacio, Mo Babouli, Adam Bouchard and Luca Uccello.
“I thought it was a good day. We got a lot of guys (playing) time. We were able to, for the first time, get some of our young players into a match like this against a high-level opponent,” Vanney said.
The lone bit of excitement in the first half came when Sebastian Larsson head-locked Lovitz as they were fighting for the ball as it went out of play. They were quickly separated before both were issued yellow cards. What Lovitz did to merit a caution remains a mystery.
Vanney didn’t wait until halftime to make changes, as he brought on eight substitutes in the 32nd minute. Yes, you didn’t misread that. Eight. Most notably, Sebastian Giovinco was done for the night, while Bono replaced Joe Bendik in goal.
In first half injury time Osorio squandered a glorious chance from six yards out while staring at an empty Sunderland goal. Osorio made amends in the 47th minute when he slotted home a shot underneath goalkeeper Costel Pantilimon to give Toronto the lead.
Defoe equalized in the 66th minute, his shot taking a deflection inside the box and beating Bono after a trio of TFC defenders failed to close him down. Defoe added another four minutes later by scoring on a tap in.
NOTES: This was the second friendly for Toronto FC season—they hosted Manchester City in May. In previous years TFC has played friendlies against Real Madrid, Liverpool, Benfica, Aston Villa, River Plate, AS Roma and Tottenham… The Reds return to MLS action on Saturday when they visit the Columbus Crew…