Can Defoe Still Make the English World Cup Squad Playing for Toronto FC?
Imagine how this scenario would play out among England supporters.
On the back page of the UK’s major newspapers there’s a photo of Roy Hodgson sitting in the stands of BMO Field in Toronto. He’s there to watch Jermaine Defoe who, let’s be frank, is taking full advantage of the talent-gap he has found himself on the better end of and now is scoring for fun in the MLS.
How would the English public react to this strong indication that a forward in an unfamiliar league is in contention to earn a spot on the squad travelling to Brazil? My guess is not well.
On Saturday Defoe played his first game at his new club Toronto FC against the Seattle Sounders. Within the first 24 minutes of his “soccer” career he had already slotted two goals past Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei, perhaps lending some credibility to this imagined scenario actually happening.
Along with Michael Bradley, young Brazilian forward Gilberto, all-time team top scorer Dwayne De Rosario and Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar (who is on loan), Defoe is part of the newest expensive injection of talent into the MLS. His move was around £5 million and he is set to earn up to around $150,000 a week, making him the best paid player in the league.
Last season Seattle were the latest team to employ this recruiting policy, bringing in Clint Dempsey from the same Spurs bench that Defoe was stagnating on. In a way, the 1-2 win on Saturday can be seen symbolically as Toronto taking the torch from Seattle as the new franchise to attempt this method.
Many saw Defoe’s move as taking one final big payday at the expense of his chances of making the England squad that would travel to this summer’s World Cup. The major reason for this being that the MLS is considered less competitive than the major European leagues that Defoe could have transferred to instead.
While apparently flush with finances, Toronto FC also didn't seem like an ideal destination given their less than glorious track-record. They have never qualified for the post-season playoffs and finished the previous season second last in the Eastern Conference. Head coach Ryan Nelson is a recognizable name for Premier League fans, but as a journeyman defender and not as a proven team manager.
Finally and most importantly, England manager Roy Hodgson has seemed unenthusiastic about players like Defoe and before Chelsea midfielder Frank Lampard moving to the MLS.
"He will be playing but he will be playing in a league a long way from the top league over here, but that won't change anything as far as I am concerned," Hodgson said about Defoe in February on the FA’s website.
"I know him and what he can do and I will pick him on those merits, and if he doesn't get picked it will be because on this occasion, there wasn't space so I preferred others.”
"But if I do pick him, it won't be because he wasn't playing at Spurs and now he is at Toronto because I don't know that.”
Defoe was included in the most recent England squad that defeated Denmark on March 5, though he remained on the bench for the game.
With 19 goals in 55 senior appearances, Defoe’s experience and goal-tally are second only to Rooney in the pool of likely forwards. Next would be Theo Walcott who is ruled out with a season-ending ruptured ACL.
The rest, in order of most England caps, would realistically be Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Andy Carroll, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez.
Barring injury, it’s a safe assumption that Daniel Sturridge and Wayne Rooney are two guaranteed players. Sturridge is currently in the form of his life at Liverpool while Rooney is arguably the most talented player in the entire squad. Lambert and Rodriguez are both putting in respectable displays at Southampton and could transfer their club’s attractive brand of football to the English framework. Andy Carroll has the weakest case, mainly because of his rotten luck with injuries, but he has the size and playing style always has him touted as a bastion of both the best or worst of English football tactics.
Recent England squads for major tournaments have tended to include four forwards (depending on how you count Walcott). So that means only two spots are available for the remaining four possible players.
It would be premature to predict Defoe’s success at Toronto after only one game. What’s most certain is he’ll earn more minutes than he did at Tottenham. And with more minutes will come match-fitness and confidence.
Looking at how Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane have adjusted to the change in leagues is a promising indication that Defoe will probably not struggle. Clint Dempsey’s Sounders career hasn't reached a full season yet and has been marred by injury problems, so his poor showing so far can be played down.
After the Sounders game Defoe was questioned again about his England chances and had this to say: “Obviously with the England thing, it’s obviously going to be in the back of my mind, but I’m sure if someone said to Roy Hodgson, ‘If you haven’t seen Jermaine scored two goals...’ then maybe he won’t be surprised.”
While it’s a given that Hodgson will still be keeping tabs on Jermaine Defoe’s performances, what’s less clear is how the English supporters and media will react to the prospect of an England player from a league that they perceive as less competitive.
The press and public’s opinions have always been vocal and unfiltered and how that influences Hodgson’s choices or Defoe’s performance will be an interesting topic to watch as the summer approaches.