There’s always two sides to a story, and none are as polarizing as Jermain Defoe’s debut. If ever there was an accusation in MLS that riles fans, it’s the “retirement league” insult. The likes of Di Vaio and Henry are seen as going to MLS for money, lifestyle, and anything but the team.
Those who watch the likes of those two veterans know it is untrue. Henry embodies winning on the pitch. In Montreal, understudies such as Andrew Wenger could not have a better mentor than Di Vaio. However, the insult sticks to the league.
When Defoe joined, it was a little different. Not only was it 2014, with the league reaching unprecedented growth and convincing national stars to return home, but the designated players were getting younger.
Over in Toronto, and now Vancouver, Matias Laba was a future thinking signing. At Colorado, Gabriel Torres is young at 25. Defoe, though, was a striker still pushing for an England World Cup place and has only recently reached the thirties. After that, the evaluating of the deal throws up two different aspects.
One way of looking at the Englishman’s move is that he has joined a rebuild like none the league has seen before. Toronto have spent big bringing in the quadruple of Julio Cesar, Gilberto, Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe himself. It shows that MLS can attract the best US international to his home league, one of Brazil’s in-form strikers, Brazil’s starting goalkeeper, and one of the Premier League’s top goalscorers. That’s no mean feat. In one off-season, Toronto have gone from whipping boys to potential MLS Cup winners.
There’s more to it off the pitch too. MLS strives for attention. TV viewings are relatively low, despite growing attendance. The league knows that while last season was about bringing its boys home, it needed another headline grabber for the new season. Defoe fulfils this.
After his two goals against the Seattle Sounders, Defoe was trending on Twitter. More importantly to those who count, MLS was trending in the UK. Exposure. Bingo.
The other way of looking at Defoe’s future in Canada is far more cynical. Defoe is in the thirty range, it may be the peak of a striker, but it is still a striker who has used up most of his best years. While it is inaccurate, it fuels the retirement league argument.
Also, while the success of Defoe brings attention, it is a double-edged sword. Defoe’s goals against Seattle were excellent, classic Defoe style finishes. It’s a shame that one came from a Marco Pappa error. While it may be small in the grand scale of things for Seattle, league-wide and worldwide, it could have wider ramifications. The other side of it is that outsiders will have seen his performance and thought that MLS was too easy and below the Englishman. Marco Pappa’s stupidity only fuels the argument that the league is too easy.
Even those with limited MLS knowledge will know that Toronto are not heavy hitters, in fact, they are the complete opposite. To see Defoe and his new comrades turn around the team so quickly will only add to the perception of MLS being easy.
Ironically, MLS is anything but and statistics back that view up. Teams who spend don’t always win. No club has ever won the MLS Cup three times in a row. The team that wins the Supporters Shield doesn’t usually win MLS Cup. Many big names such as Rafa Marquez and Kleberson haven’t been good enough for MLS. These facts show that the league is hard and takes intelligence as well as quality to win.
Yet, the signing of Defoe takes the gleam off it. For the casual viewer, Defoe just tore MLS up. For the more ardent fans, and those who have seen it before, we wait in anticipation for a usual Toronto collapse or for MLS to throw up one of its many surprises.
Defoe is a fantastic coup for MLS, but his debut just threw up a whole lot of questions for the league, the die hards, and the casuals. What matters more, reputation or attention?