TORONTO - Jermain Defoe has been where Gilberto is — under the microscope and unable to score goals.
Defoe insists it's only a matter of time before his Toronto FC strike partner starts finding the net. And he's told Gilberto the same thing several times.
"Everyone's trying to talk to him, not just me. The manager and everyone. . . all the boys are just trying to be positive," Defoe said. "I'm sure he's experienced enough to know it's just a matter of time. He's been unlucky.
"Hopefully when he gets the first one, he'll score many more. Still got a long way to go, it's a long season."
Toronto FC (4-4-1) hosts the Columbus Crew (4-4-4) at BMO Field on Saturday, a game that coach Ryan Nelsen said, in the event of a victory, could "springboard us forward for the rest of the season"
Gilberto was part of Toronto's much-celebrated off-season makeover, acquired to boost the club's underpowered offence. The 24-year-old Brazilian has come oh so close numerous times, banging shots off the post and sending balls just wide of the net. But he remains without a goal in eight Major League Soccer appearances.
And with his near-misses comes increasing scrutiny, which Defoe said comes "part and parcel with playing football."
"I suppose at any level really where you've got to perform, people will expect you to perform, and obviously if you don't people are going to ask questions," Defoe said after Friday's practice at the club's sun-drenched training grounds just north of the city. "But on the flip side, when you're playing well and you're scoring goals, everyone loves it and you get all the praise. So if it's not going well, I suppose you have to just 'take it on the chin,' as they say in England."
Nelsen joked that he's played through goal-scoring droughts that lasted years — he, of course, was a defender. But he believes the scrutiny is a bit unfair.
"Strikers, they get referred to as 'goalscoring,' with defenders it's 'conceding,' . . sometimes (playing) just feels wrong. And it's not just in football, it's in your job," Nelsen told reporters. "You have a couple of months where it's just tough, things just don't seem to go your way. It's life.
"The only trouble in our job is everybody is watching you when it happens. Everybody talks about it, everybody wants to know about it, everybody's picking your brain about it. You all go through it, sometimes it's just more out front, it's just right out there in the media."
Gilberto scored 14 goals in 24 games for Portuguesa of Brazil's top division last season.
He signed with Toronto as a Designated Player in December, and is set to earn US$1.2 million this season — 12th highest in MLS. One TFC official mused before the season kicked off that the Brazilian may score even more goals than Defoe, but the former Tottenham Hotspur striker leads the way with four goals in six games.
"I think every striker has been through spells where at some stage in the season you might go a few games without scoring," Defoe said. "But you've just got to keep working hard and getting into position where you're going to score. You've got to remain positive and that's all you can do really.
"Obviously it's difficult because your confidence gets really low. But he's working hard. I'm sure it's just a matter of time before he scores."
Defoe missed Toronto's previous game against Columbus with a hamstring injury — a 2-0 road victory on April 5 that boosted the team's record to 3-1.
Both Defoe and Nelsen said they like where the team is positioned right now. There's a sense that it's turned the corner after a disappointing stretch.
"We're starting to strengthen ourselves and trust our squad and get a bit hardened," Nelsen said. "Going to have our ups and downs of course, but we're starting to become an MLS squad which is literally competitive in every game. And considering what we inherited here, it's a good little evolution.
"I know everybody wants to just flip the switch and you go from nobodies to champions overnight and it doesn't happen like that. If you just step back, you can look where we were and look where we are, you kind of see an evolution or development's that other teams — probably because they weren't as low as us — are not making. That's what I like about our team, everybody's just getting a wee bit better, and the squad's just getting a wee bit better every day."
Nelsen was happy to have midfielders Jonathan Osorio (hamstring) and Jackson Goncalves (concussion) back practising Friday. The two will be available to play against the Crew.
"I'm anxious to come back. I hate missing games, obviously. I even hate missing practices," said the Toronto-born Osorio. "I'm more excited that I'm healthy, I'm feeling good, so I'm excited (Saturday) to just play without any worries, without any knocks on me, and to be 100 per cent."
The club will be missing captain and defender Steven Caldwell, who will serve his suspension for a red-card he received in Toronto's last league game — a 2-2 draw at Kansas City. Coincidentally, Toronto was also missing Caldwell in last month's meeting.
"Hopefully we can repeat that (win with him)," Nelsen said. "But I think you've seen in Bradley Orr, and Doneil Henry and Nick Hagglund we've got some pretty decent cover there, so hopefully whoever plays at centre back will be right up for it."
Toronto will also be without recently-acquired midfielder Collen Warner.
"His brother is getting married in Denver, and he's the best man," Nelsen said.
"On several levels, us guys may have told him to tell his brother he's making a bad mistake," Nelsen added, laughing. "(Warner) says he's batting well above his average, so he should do it as soon as he can so. . . To tell you the truth, that's like me exactly."