Leiweke: Toronto FC has target if Defoe leaves

Jermain Defoe. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — If England striker Jermain Defoe doesn’t return, Toronto FC already knows who it is going after next.

But MLSE boss Tim Leiweke says any deal involving Defoe will have to be worth it for the MLS club. And any move will be at the behest of the team and not the player.

“We know this is a great place to play, we know we have guys like Michael Bradley that love Toronto. Gilberto loves Toronto,” Leiweke told The Canadian Press in an interview Tuesday.

“In fact when I look at the basketball team and the hockey team, we’ve got a group of guys now that all want to be here and all want to be a part of the Leafs, the Raptors and TFC. That’s what we want. That’s how you build winning teams.

“Jermain needs to decide if he wants to be here. If he does, then I think he’s one of the great strikers in MLS. If he does not, then that situation is ours to ultimately decide — not his — because we own his contract. We’re not going to give him away. And so we’re in a good spot.

“The one thing I can promise our fans — one way or another, this will end well for TFC. (I) guarantee it.”

The London Evening Standard reported Tuesday that Queens Park Rangers, who reportedly have been after Defoe for months, have a deal in place to sign the 32-year-old forward when the transfer window reopens in January.

Leiweke suggested that anyone who goes after Defoe will have to dig deep into its wallet to get him.

“As I’ve said before, Jermain Defoe was not a mistake,” said Leiweke, who led the chase for the former Spurs star. “He is a very good player and I think in his heart, in his soul, a good man. But we have to determine does he want to be here. There’s no DP that is ultimately going to leave this organization and we go backwards on the capital invested. That’s not going to happen.”

Leiweke’s comments seem to ramp up the Defoe stakes.

Previously, club officials had said they only want players who want to be here. Leiweke’s message Tuesday was if you want Defoe, you will have to pay for him.

Leiweke, whose term as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment is slated to end by next June, went so far as to say Plan B is already drawn up.

And he went even further.

“We know where we are going. If we have a DP (designated player) slot open, we already know who we’re going after. And I am 100 per cent convinced we’re going to be a better team on the pitch next year — without a lot of changes.

“We need some consistency and we need a core group and a core value system here. Some people believe in what we’re doing. Others are hoping we fail.”

Toronto (11-15-8) failed to make the playoffs for an eighth straight year, despite setting club single-season records for wins (11) and points (41).

The English report is just the latest scuttlebutt surrounding the 32-year-old Defoe, who led Toronto with 11 goals in an injury-plagued debut season in North America.

Toronto turned down a club-record transfer bid for Defoe at the end of the summer transfer window, reportedly from QPR.

For his part, Defoe has said he likes Toronto and never asked publicly to leave. But he has been hazy over what lies ahead, saying only he can’t predict the future.

“DPs are not an exact science,” Leiweke said.

“This is still a work in progress here and it is not lost on us that Jermain Defoe had a very good start to the season and scored 11 goals in 16 games. And during that span we were a team that had a good record and would have made the playoffs — and in fact hosted the playoffs — had we continued that pace,” he added. “We didn’t. We’ve got to do better and we know it. But I think we took a step in the right direction.”

Leiweke said team ownership has committed the resources to three designated players — whose combined salary in 2014 was US$13.885 million according to the MLS Players Union.

“Now we just have to determine do all three DPs want to be a part of what we’re building here. And if one of them does not, then the only way we ever make a move for any of our DPs is a deal that is in our best interest. And so this is the club’s decision, it’s not the players. In all due respect, we have acquired the rights to all three players. And so we’re going to do what’s in the best interest of TFC. Period.”

In reviewing his designated players, Leiweke only cited a question mark over Defoe.

He praised Bradley’s passion, intensity and love for Toronto. He called Gilberto “a raw talent who is only going to get better.”

“And I think Jermain is one of the better strikers in the world of football. And if he wants to be here and he’s focused on being a part of this organization, then we saw what he can do. And there’s no question how good Jermain Defoe is.”

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