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Toronto FC lands Gilberto in hopes of boosting offence

The Canadian Press

12/13/2013 7:37:07 PM

TORONTO -- Young, good-looking and said to be a pure goal-scorer, Brazil's Gilberto ticks most of Tim Leiweke's boxes for a designated player.

The 24-year-old forward speaks Portuguese, however, making selling Toronto FC and MLS a little tough.

No English, no problem, said Leiweke.

"We have someone else coming in to do that for us," said the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.

Leiweke, TFC manager Ryan Nelsen and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko weren't saying more but their wide smiles Friday spoke volumes.

Toronto FC fans should probably get their order in for a red jersey with No. 18 on the back. Expect Spurs star and England striker Jermain Defoe to swagger through the door sometime soon, complete with a truckload of MLSE cash.

Gilberto joins midfielder Matias Laba as a TFC designated player. The 31-year-old Defoe, who used to play with Nelsen at Tottenham, would be a giant cherry on the cake.

Another MLS veteran could arrive next week and there could be more coming. The club has talked to former TFC player Dwayne De Rosario, although the former league MVP would have to accept a reduced salary and role.

Still, the team believes the 35-year-old Canadian captain could play a key role on and off the field, while closing out his career before adoring fans in his home town.

First things first, however.

It's been a bumper week for Toronto with the signing of Gilberto, goalkeeper Joe Bendik inking a new deal, Greg Vanney coming on board as academy director and the acquisition of Brazilian midfielder Jackson from FC Dallas.

The 6-17-11 team was also chuffed at picking up first-round draft picks in 2014 and '15 for the rights to goalkeeper Stefan Frei (dealt to Seattle) and midfielder Bobby Convey (dealt to New York Red Bulls).

Given both players were on their way out, it was essentially a case of getting something for nothing.

Gilberto was the big catch of the week, however. Bezbatchenko called the Brazilian a "young rising star of the game."

"A great coup for the club," said Nelsen, whose off-field connections helped cut through the red tape of dealing with Brazil.

It's also a coup for the North American league, which in the past has had to settle for aging overseas stars.

Gilberto is young, has played at a high level and comes with solid credentials. MLS fans should see him flourish rather than fade.

Loaned out by Internacional, Gilberto Oliveira Souza Junior scored 14 goals in 28 games in Brazil's top division this season in helping Portuguesa avoid relegation (although the club still could be demoted for mistakenly using an irregular player in the final round last weekend).

Gilberto was signed by Internacional from third-division club Santa Cruz in 2011 but didn't make the team, playing only sparingly. He then joined Sport Club de Recife on loan in 2012 before coming to Portuguesa this year.

In four seasons in the Brazilian Serie A, he has made 109 appearances, with 38 goals and 10 assists.

Bezbatchenko said Gilberto turned down deals in Mexico, Germany and other countries to choose Toronto and MLS.

The Mexican offers were in the four-million-euro (C$5.8 million) range.

Speaking through an interpreter, Gilberto came across as charismatic and self-assured at a news conference in the Air Canada Centre foyer.

"I'm very happy to be here," he said.

The Brazilian said he had been enticed by Nelsen's plans for the future during a visit to Brazil. He specifically cited the club's championship ambitions, which seem a reach given the team's performance in recent years.

"It's not necessarily the past that attracts players obviously, it's the future," said Nelsen.

The stability of MLSE, TFC's well-appointed training facility and a good fan base no doubt helped sell the Brazilian on Toronto. Plus the club wanted him.

"He scores all types of goals -- whether they're headers, left foot, right foot, inside the box, outside the box ... His work ethic is tremendous, his character is tremendous," Nelsen said. "He showed great leadership on the field and is a very humble human being off it, which is extremely important to me."

Speaking through an interpreter, Gilberto said he also liked the idea that the league was growing.

"This made me open my eyes and I was looking for new challenges for myself," he said.

Gilberto, who has a fiancee, grew up a Flamengo fan, with Romario and Ronaldo among his favourite players.

Toronto FC has failed to make the playoffs in its seven-year history and finished 17th in the 19-team league this season, scoring just 30 goals in 34 games.