The Brazilian striker is rounding into true designated player form for Toronto FC at just the right time.Are there any Gilberto doubters still out there?
After an ignominious start to his first Major League Soccer campaign that saw some Toronto FC supporters openly debate his Designated Player status, the Brazilian striker has finally announced his arrival as an elite forward in the league.
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It only took the better part of five months for him to do so, with injuries and a seemingly impossible unlucky streak hampering him from demonstrating in the early going exactly why TFC shelled out a reported $3 million transfer fee for his services over the winter.
Missed opportunities piled up, and the inevitable questions about his abilities started to surface with increasing frequency.
No one doubted Gilberto's work rate — anyone could see the tireless effort the 25-year-old puts into every minute he spends on the pitch — but the fact is that strikers are judged upon the goals they score, and for the first three months of the 2014 campaign he remained goalless.
And then things changed. All it took was a bizarre on-field spat with Toronto's other offseason multimillion dollar attacking acquisition for Gilberto to finally start earning his sizable paycheque.
Gilberto's bullet free kick goal seemed to lift a giant weight off the striker's back, but many were still not convinced. After all, it was a single set piece following an untold number of flubbed chances. Plus, he still hadn't scored from the run of play for TFC, and a single free kick wasn't going to change any of that.
To a degree, that line of thinking was correct. Gilberto actually reaggravated a hip flexor injury on that shot, and he would go on to play just 24 minutes of Toronto's next four MLS matches.
Upon his return to TFC's starting lineup, Gilberto once again found himself on the scoresheet. This one was relatively run-of-the-mill compared to his account opener from a month prior, with the Brazilian taking a nice touch inside the 18-yard box before slipping the ball through a number of defenders.
What didn't show up on the scoresheet was a growing confidence in the player, as Gilberto started to impose himself onto games. And while he wouldn't score again for another couple of matches, it almost felt inevitable that Ol' Gil (as some had derisivinely taken to calling him) would break out.
Then August hit.
With the so-called dog days of summer in full swing and Jermain Defoe struggling with injury, Gilberto took it upon himself to lead the Toronto FC attack. For four straight weeks, the Brazilian found the back of the net — each strike topping the last in entertainment value.
He was finding ways to make things happen offensively, something that could not be said of him just a few weeks before.
"He brings an energy, works really hard," TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen said of Gilberto after Saturday's 2-2 draw with Chicago, a game in which the striker broke free from the Fire's defensive line and neatly rounded Sean Johnson for his sixth goal of the year.
"When the ball goes up to him it generally sticks or generally something is forced to happen."
But even when the ball isn't at his feet, Gilberto is finding ways to help his team. A tireless worker, the striker will constatntly harrass opposing players and force turnovers or forced passes. When he wasn't scoring, many derided Gilberto's defensive work as the minimum requirement to make up for a lack of potency in front of goal.
Now that he's on an impressive run of attacking form, the work he puts in defensively is becoming more appreciated in many quarters.
Gilberto... Most complete striker in MLS. No debate.— Kurtis Larson (@KurtLarSUN) August 23, 2014
But why did it take him so long to get there?
It's accepted wisdom that there will be a protracted adjustment period for players from overseas to acclimate to MLS. Heck, even American posterboy Clint Dempsey needed an entire half-season last year to reacquaint himself with the quirks of the league before claiming a place among the league's most prolific attackers.
In contrast, Gilberto was facing much more than just a simple hop across a continent. Cultural differences, language barriers, wildy different weather and a new playing style were all things that he had to adjust to, while also being a big part of the most ambitious rebuilding project in MLS history.
For a while it looked like it would all be too much for Gilberto to handle, but is anyone willing to bet against him now?