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Canadian Exile

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In January 2014, Jermaine Defoe set out to blaze a trail to the World Cup in the wilds of Toronto, Canada. He failed. Roy Hodgson called him up, but only to the reserve list. Now, was that fair? Should Defoe really be on that plane to Brazil?

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While Defoe won't be hanging out on Sao Paulo beaches, he will get an extra month of hanging out with Drake.
While Defoe won't be hanging out on Sao Paulo beaches, he will get an extra month of hanging out with Drake.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In January of this year, the (by-then) seemingly inevitable transfer of Jermain Defoe from Tottenham to Toronto FC of America Canada and MLS was announced. It was generally accepted that the English striker went to the wilds of North Montana scenic Toronto for two reasons: 1) To get more playing time in order to improve his chances in making the English World Cup squad, and 2) to hang out with Drake. Ok, if you include the rather large paycheck, three reasons. How did he do? It seems like he's well on track to getting acquainted with his favorite Canadian music persona. He certainly ought to be cashing some sizable checks. Wait, you wanted to know about the World Cup squad? Ah,... er... well... he made the provisional roster. He didn't actually get invited for that 23 man party down in Brazil; he's just on standby in case somebody gets hurt. So... no he didn't. How is he taking it? Well, by his own admission, he's kinda, sorta, to use his own words, "devastated". Barring some major offseason mishaps, Defoe will be limited to just a single World Cup, one where he was behind Emile Heskey in the pecking order half the time, to boot.

This, of course, brings up the question - where exactly did Defoe's World Cup bid fall short?

Two obvious questions ought to be addressed when dealing with that question. Is Defoe's quality of play up to the standards of the National team? And is he playing in a league where the level of play he is showing high enough to indicate that he would be able to replicate such form at the big international show?

While Defoe has missed some time due to injury since joining Toronto FC, he had been rather excellent for the Reds when he has been on the field. In the two games he's played since he was snubbed from the World Cup roster, Defoe has played rather well, recording an assist and scoring a great goal. He's scored 4 goals in 512 minutes of league play, averaging .70 goals per 90 minutes. Among players who have played at least 270 minutes (about 3 games), Defoe's goal per 90 comes in the top ten in the league.

Next question: Is MLS good enough? Obviously, the American league isn't up to par with the Premier League. But, is it good enough for international calibre players? The league, as a whole, currently has 23 players named to World Cup Rosters*. Less than half play for the United States (Canada hasn't qualified in decades.) That would have made MLS the eighth highest represented league in the 2010 World Cup. On just Toronto FC are Michael Bradley, arguably the best current American player, and Julio Cesar, Brazil's starting goalkeeper.  Frankly speaking, I'd rather have Michael Bradley line up next to Steven Gerrard than any player in the English pool. If that's the calibre of players in the league, then I wouldn't worry at all about the quality of MLS. But he's, if not the best, one of the best players in the league. Most player's aren't even close to his talent level. And a big reason why he's over there is to collect a large paycheck. However, one player who is not in MLS simply for a big payday is Julio Cesar. Cesar joined QPR in the Premier League in 2012 from Inter in Italy. In London, he found himself with a team heading towards relegation and with a lot of pressure from reserve Robert Green. Cesar would eventually find time a bit more scare than he would have liked with Green eating some of his minutes. At the start of 2014, he made the move to MLS and Canada to play against better competition and get more minutes. He has certainly been very positive of MLS.  Cesar was once in contention by fans and media as a top keeper in the world, and he's still an absolute lock to start in the world cup. Actually, that lock on the starting spot appears to be less in-spite of play in MLS and more because of it. Here's what Scolari has had to say about the league.

[MLS] is not one of the best in the world technically, but without a doubt it has improved a lot with the arriving of big stars arriving and something very important, it is highly competitive," Pareirra said. "It was very important for us that Júlio César moved to a very competitive league.

It's hard to dismiss the words of the coach of the host and general favorite, Brazil. Considering the kind of pedigree that Brazil will expect in their opposition, I would fully expect the coach to demand that his players play in strong leagues.

Looking at the league, I could actually argue that playing in specifically MLS should have helped Defoe make the national team. If you look at the players at the World Cup from MLS, you'll notice that there are a number of Costa Ricans. Of course, Costa Rica will be playing against England in this World Cup. In a competitive group, that fixture is probably the must-win game. Even if he hasn't directly played against them (through schedule or injury), Defoe should be familiar with the likes of Roy Miller, Giancarlo Gonzalez, Waylon Francis, Àlvaro Saborio (announced injured), and Jairo Arrieta. Even if he personally hasn't played against those players, he very likely has encountered similar players in the league, giving him real preparation for that match.

Further, this World Cup in particular will feature some brutal travel conditions, something that has been a hallmark of MLS. England's group stage travel will approach 5000 miles. In a ten day span this May, Toronto FC traveled to Vancouver for a cup game, back for a home game, and then to New York City for a league game. That's approximately 4800 flying miles. And that's nothing unusual. In the first three fixtures of the season, Toronto FC traveled over 7000 miles in a two week period. In contrast, not a single Premier League fixture even requires taking a plane. One of the longest distances traveled in the league schedule, Southampton to Sunderland and back, takes a mere 600 miles. It is would be rather simple to make the drive in time for the game, watch it in its entirety, grab a bite to eat, and be back home in a single day. It's even easier if you are flying, a mere 3 hours for a round trip. If you look at Arsenal's Champion's League fixture list, you'll see that they had quite a lot of flying to do between London, Naples, Dortmund, and Marseille. However, if you look at the total distance for those six games (there and back for each game) you get a mere 4000 flying miles accumulated. The point is, the distances being traveled in Brazil greatly dwarf most anything English clubs have to go through. But that same amount of travel is in turn exceeded by MLS. Does all this travel by plane really make a difference? Well, yeah. Having a player who is acclimatized to that kind of rigor would be a great advantage to any national team.

So, Defoe is playing well, and he's playing in a league that, not only is good enough, but offers some unique advantages. Why wasn't he on the team?

He simply doesn't fit into the side.

I doubt it was the only reason he didn't make it, but having a Jermaine Defoe on this English national team really doesn't make a lot of sense, considering where the team is going. It seems like the English national team, and even the English media, have accepted that it's rather unlikely that England will win the World Cup this year. Roy Hodgson has announced that he wants to give youth a chance, a move clearly aimed at improving the odds four years from now. Looking at the forwards he's called up, you can see a line of continuity with that statement. Danny Welback and Daniel Sturridge are 23 and 24, respectively. They will both likely be at the 2018 World cup, and possibly feature in 2022. Further, they both can play in a number of different positions, making them useful for squad coverage and tactical flexibility. The other two strikers are Wayne Rooney and Rickie Lambert, who are 28 and 32, respectively. Rooney is the most talented player on the English team and he was always going to be on the line up. Rickie Lambert, though, is the odd one out. If Defoe had any chance of making the World Cup, it would have been in Lambert's place. But Lambert is an entirely different player than Defoe and arguably makes more sense for the English national team. Defoe is an out-and-out poacher. You can count on him for goals, but little else. In contrast, Lambert is willing to get more involved in the build up. Over the course of a stellar season with Southampton, he racked up a fantastic 10 assists, about one per three games. Defoe, on the other hand. has two assists in combined league play with both Tottenham and Toronto. With capable goal scorers on the squad, it simply made no sense to bring a poacher who offered nothing creatively.

In short, Defoe fully deserved to go to Brazil. But his skill set just didn't make him right for the team. I guess he'll have to settle with enjoying the music scene in America Canada.