SPORTS

It's a small soccer world: Connections key in Toronto FC spending spree

01/13/2014 06:06 EST | Updated 03/15/2014 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - While soccer spans the globe, it's a small world when it comes to the sport's elite circles.

One connection after another led to Toronto FC's signings of England star striker Jermain Defoe, U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley and Brazilian forward Gilberto.

While the 31-year-old Defoe and 26-year-old Bradley are already marquee names, the 24-year-old Gilberto is a new face to many.

Not to Bradley, however. The U.S. international midfielder knew of him though Brazilian teammates at AS Roma, according to MLSE boss Tim Leiweke.

"They knew him, they spoke very highly," said Leiweke,

Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen knew Gilberto's agent, a big hitter with major league ties in South America. That helped pave the way for the transfer to Toronto.

After Gilberto, the acquisition of Defoe helped sell Bradley on the team.

"Quite frankly I'm not sure we would have got Michael without Jermain," said Leiweke.

Toronto GM Tim Bezbatchenko, a former MLS front office insider, has a good relationship with Bradley's agent and was keeping an eye on the player. When he heard Bradley was thinking about returning to North America, he was first in line.

"Tim B was relentless and I will admit he might have had a (horse)shoe or two permanently implanted in his you know where," said Leiweke.

Bradley, meanwhile, recalled the words of past Canadian teammates Rob Friend, Paul Stalteri and Will Johnson.

"They all say the same thing, they all talk about what an incredible city Toronto is," he said. "And they say it's a city that is dying to have a team that they can be proud of, dying to have a team that they come to the stadium and go home feeling like they identify with."

Nelsen played with Defoe at Tottenham, so there was already a key connection.

Defoe is a huge fan of Drake, the Toronto hip-hop star who Leiweke made a global ambassador for the Toronto Raptors.

Drake called Defoe to fill him in on Toronto's many pluses.

"As a musician, he's up there with the greatest. He's special," said Defoe. "That natural gift that's he got from God. He's a special person. I respect him highly."

Defoe said he "was like a little kid" when he first met Drake several years ago in London. Getting a phone call at dinner from the rapper came out of the blue during TFC's wooing.

"I thought 'Who's that?' Answered it. It's Drake," he recalled. "So you can imagine what it was like. It was quite surreal, to be honest. It felt special.

"He just said 'It's a fantastic city, you'd enjoy it. The fans are amazing. It's a great sports city, not just football — all the other sports.'

"He just said you know, 'When you come here, the people will love you, your family will enjoy it. They'll let you live your life.' He just said 'I look forward to meeting you and showing you the city.'

"It was a special phone call. I appreciated that."

Defoe, meanwhile, knew of Bradley and what he can do,

"When you're playing with top players, it makes it a lot easier," he said.

Leiweke knew David Beckham, having brought the former England captain to the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer. So he turned to Beckham, who already had a relationship with Defoe through the English national team, to help sell the Spurs striker on MLS.

Leiweke also brought striker Robbie Keane to the Galaxy. Keane played with Defoe at Spurs and Defoe reached out to the Irish international when he was back training with Tottenham to get his take on the North American league.

"He said it was a fantastic league and you'd enjoy it," said Defoe

Defoe also consulted former U.S. goalie Brad Friedel, a friend at Spurs.

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