Toronto FC manager Ryan Nelsen removed most of the doubt surrounding Jermain Defoe’s balky hamstring in the buildup to the Reds’ 2-1 defeat at FC Dallas on Saturday. Instead of permitting the uncertainty to fester, Nelsen said he had targeted the home match against New England on May 2 for Defoe’s probable return.
If that date eventually holds, then Defoe will presumably return to the side after a three-match absence. It isn’t make or break in MLS terms, but it does heap pressure on him to prove his fitness straightaway after missing the entire month of April. There simply isn’t much time left for Defoe to state his case before England manager Roy Hodgson submits his preliminary list of 30 players on May 13.
At that stage of the deliberations, Hodgson can afford to include Defoe in his squad. There is some latitude available to provide a wider berth for a proven poacher in a group somewhat devoid of them. His pedigree at the international level warrants further inspection during the inevitable deliberations as the final roster deadline approaches on May 2.
Yet the issue of Defoe’s fitness looms as a potential detriment to his cause. The former Tottenham striker operates as the primary figure for Toronto FC when fit, but he projects as a late-match substitute for England. His burst of pace and his predatory instincts fit well into that role. He must only prove his health and his sharpness to Hodgson in order to force his way into the crowded reckoning.
Both traits are rather difficult to prove from the training table. Defoe’s protracted absence exacerbates the inherent concerns – at least in England – about whether his move to MLS will dull his effectiveness at the very highest levels. His early displays in Toronto present a sturdy riposte, but his recent spell on the sidelines underscores the tenuous nature of those gains on a wider scale.
It is incumbent on Hodgson – or any World Cup manager, for that matter – to assess, mitigate and take risks accordingly with his squad. The exacting toll ahead in June stresses the 23-man congregation. There is room to accommodate the odd gamble on a younger or an unfit player, but it must be used wisely in order to maintain the balance of the group.
Defoe – despite his evident qualities – isn’t the sort of figure likely to prompt Hodgson to tip the scales one way or the other. He must prove his utility with his performances with Toronto and show his ability to contribute at a higher level to press his claims for inclusion. Any other route leaves him in some peril of missing the plane entirely.
The conundrum – get fit or suffer the potential consequences – cuts both ways. Houston midfielder Brad Davis needs to reinforce his own case over the next few weeks, but an ankle knock sidelined him for the past two matches. Seattle midfielder Brad Evans wants to display good form after recently returning from a lingering calf injury. Vancouver defender Johnny Leverón can’t fight his way into the Whitecaps starting XI, but his stock in the Honduran squad increases every time a potential adversary in central defense suffers a setback through injury (Juan Pablo Montes) or suspect competition (Osman Chávez in the Chinese second division).
Expect the ebb and flow to continue as players jostle for positions and managers weigh their options across the board. There is no room for doubt or error at this point for these World Cup hopefuls. And the stark reality ahead makes Defoe’s impending return to fitness – and the relative certainty behind it – all the more important as the process continues.