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Revolution will not be cheap but Toronto are in the mood

LATE on Sunday night, the Twitter feed of Toronto FC put out a warning to their 57,000 followers.

Jermain Defoe, as demonstrated by his goal for Tottenham on Saturday, is not your stereotypical washed-up Premier League import. Picture: Frank Gunn/PA
Jermain Defoe, as demonstrated by his goal for Tottenham on Saturday, is not your stereotypical washed-up Premier League import. Picture: Frank Gunn/PA

"We apologize to all employers," it began. "Your employees will not get any work done tomorrow morning." Then came the sign-off the account has been using a lot in recent days: It's A Bloody Big Deal! The deal in question was the Canadian club's recruitment of Jermain Defoe from Tottenham Hotspur, the apology for the imminent downturn in productivity a reference to Defoe's official media unveiling on Monday morning.

If Major League Soccer has often been viewed sneeringly in Europe as a place where ageing talents go simply to top up their pension, then the acquisition of Defoe, after the transfer of Michael Bradley from AS Roma and the returning Dwayne de Rosario, should obliterate many of those perceptions. Admittedly, Defoe, at 31 years old, is closer to the end of his career than the start but, as his goal for Spurs on Saturday demonstrated, he is not a player in the midst of a dramatic decline.

His move in a World Cup year has predictably attracted criticism from some who cannot understand why anyone would ever want to leave the Barclays Premier League, and certainly not for a club that has known little but difficult times since its foundation nearly seven years ago.

Toronto's history is not much to boast about. Ryan Nelsen, their eighth head coach in a list that also includes Maurice Johnston, oversaw a team that won just six games last season on their way to finishing second bottom of the Eastern Conference. The previous seasons were not much better. In the seven years of their existence, Toronto have never managed to qualify for the end-of-season play-offs.

This year, though, the expectation is different. Bankrolled by Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), who also own the city's professional ice hockey and basketball teams, Toronto have introduced a new chief executive in Tim Leiweke - who brought David Beckham to MLS - and a new general manager in Tim Bezbatchenko, with the latter promising a "revolution" after years of underachievement and mismanagement.

Revolutions tend to cost money and Toronto have not stinted so far despite the imposition of a squad salary cap, paying a reported £5m apiece for designated players Defoe and Bradley, while shelling out in the region of £90,000 a week to retain the England internationalist on a four-year contract. With De Rosario and Gilberto, a promising 24 year-old Brazilian striker, also on board ahead of the new season that commences in March, the belief is that this will be a breakthrough year, regardless of what it will cost. "Are we going to make money this year?" asked Leiweke. "No. But that was not a concern. To the credit of the owners, they understand it's going to take us a while to get this to a point where we pay for it. But they wanted to make a statement. Are we paying a premium to do it? Yes. Do our fans deserve it? One hundred per cent. Am I going to apologise for it? Not at all."

Even in a multicultural region like Ontario, where soccer is the No.1 sport enjoyed by the Hispanic and European diaspora, crowds at Toronto games have been relatively disappointing. An average gate of around 18,000 may seem impressive but it is still some way shy of the 44,000 who turn out regularly to see league rivals Seattle Sounders.

The hope is that the arrival of Defoe, Bradley and De Rosario - who is a former Toronto player and hometown hero - to play alongside the likes of Steven Caldwell will help boost numbers and also precipitate the expansion and upgrade of the club's 22,000-capacity BMO Field stadium. A downtrodden support that has known only seven years of misery can hardly believe the transformation that it is taking place and they are not the only ones.

"When Tim Leiweke first came in he made a lot of bold, brash promises," said Jason de Vos, the former Dundee United defender now working as a media pundit in his native Ontario. "At the time I thought, 'stop talking' because this franchise has a history of overpromising and under-delivering.

"But Kudos to Tim, and also Tim Bezbatchenko, for delivering on those promises. Now, rather than talking about Toronto as a hopeless, directionless franchise, people are talking about them as a contender to reach the play-offs and win them."

If there is a warning for excited fans it comes in the shape of the Toronto Blue Jays, the city's baseball team, who similarly spent heavily on big names for the 2013 season and still somehow finished bottom of their division. Nothing, though, can diminish Leiweke's enthusiasm at this point.

"This is going to be a great fun team to watch and a wonderful ride now for everybody in Toronto," he says. "I'm really excited about that."

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