Jermain Defoe Is a Microcosm of Why MLS Sucks

On Wednesday, Jermain Defoe returned to BMO Field in a Sunderland shirt to play Toronto FC in a friendly - three days before a TFC travel to play a league match in Columbus.  

There are so many things wrong with that sentence to any fan of Major League Soccer.

“It just felt forced,” said Phil Tobin, president of The Red Patch Boys, TFC’s joint-oldest supporters club.

“The Pan-Am games are on, the Defoe pandering - it’s too much, considering the huge August we have coming up. [I couldn’t justify] commuting for a meaningless game,” Tobin said.

It’s the first home game Tobin has missed in eight years.

If a day one fan like Tobin can’t justify watching his local team play against exotic opposition, why did TFC insist on hosting an all around uncomfortable affair?

The only reason the Englishman is back in the 6ix - Drake was a big factor the first time around - is TFC weren’t happy with just one friendly match against a club affiliated with Defoe. When he signed for the Reds in 2014, his contract promised two.

In typical MLS fashion, TFC made Defoe honour his original agreement designed to sell tickets: he’d have to play a friendly against Toronto with his new side at a later date.

This burning desire for MLS teams to acquire top, or near top-level talent and bend over backwards to accommodate is both debilitating and humiliating.

TFC’s capture of Defoe serves as a prime example. His announcement, dubbed the “Big Bloody Deal” is still on their main website in its full, desperate glory.  

TFC fans however, are over it.

I count two Toronto shirts.

The maligned striker returned to a cold reception from a two-thirds full BMO Field to slot two past his former club, and feel justified in his decision to leave.  

Sure, TFC sucked for the nine seconds Defoe graced the team with his presence, but he shouldn’t be exempt from all blame.

Defoe only appeared 19 times in his single MLS season, scoring 11 goals.

There are 34 games in an MLS regular season, and even Steven Caldwell, a 34-year-old walking injury, managed to play 21 in the same time frame as Defoe.

He didn’t play often or well most of the time, but when he did, Defoe was easily the team’s best and most important player.

The only things that stood in his way were his body and terrible attitude. Defoe’s groin was held together by paper maché and yarn, wet from his own tears. He wasn’t having a good time in Toronto, and he wasn’t afraid to show it.

In swooped mother, agent and overlord Sandra St. Helen to kick up controversy. She raised a huge stink within the club, allegedly organizing Defoe’s return to England before TFC were even aware he wanted to leave.

Defoe’s car crash of a season in MLS served as warning to other clubs who were thinking of signing someone similar: don’t bloody do it.

Still, the league and its teams don’t listen. Frank Lampard was supposed to begin the season with new expansion club New York City FC, completing his transfer from parent club Manchester City on January 1. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Lampard may have said otherwise, but his head was turned. He’d been picked up by Manchester City, a top Premier League team that was willing to pay and play him when Chelsea didn’t. After four months, he wasn’t ready to give up his last chance at a European trophy.

Here we are in late July, and Lampard still hasn’t made his debut for NYCFC, this time due to a short-term injury.

Players like Defoe and Lampard who’ve spent their careers facing the best in the world and making millions in Europe have to close their eyes and dive head first into MLS, knowing it won’t be the same.

Right now, there’s nothing teams can do about that. The standard of play in MLS is lower than almost any other top-tier league in the world, but in the short term, it doesn’t matter.

The pockets of the league’s best players will be handsomely lined, and their pictures will be lit up in Times Square. So these stars are prepared to deal the step down,

It’s an unsustainable business model. If there’s one thing most sports fans aren’t, it’s patient. It doesn’t take long for ticket holders to get fed up with mediocrity. While the league’s popularity has exploded in recent year, MLS’ standard of play may not be improving fast enough to support itself.

One of the biggest obstacles to progress that the league has yet to tackle is money management.

Right now, less than 1 per cent of the league’s players are making many, many more times the average. The worst part is it’s all allowed, and even encouraged by MLS’ regulations.

Only three players per team are allowed to earn more than the league maximum, capped at $436,250 for 2015. These three designated players only count for $436,250 each on the cap sheet, but teams are allowed to pay each player as much as they can afford beyond the league max.

Essentially, teams have a blank cheque. Presumably, the three-player limit exists to avoid the sugar daddy problem currently plaguing football overseas.

Soon, homegrown talent will be good enough to make the jump overseas in droves, not just in isolated cases like Tottenham’s DeAndre Yedlin.

But without the cash flow to bankroll someone as expensive as Michael Bradley or Clint Dempsey, keeping talent on home soil will prove increasingly difficult by the year.

So sure, MLS teams can continue to chase the world’s Jermain Defoe’s and Frank Lampard’s, spending cash by the boatful to stock their three precious slots with the gems of yesteryear.

In the end, it’ll just feel forced.


Anders Marshall