Toronto FC forward Jesus Jimenez (9) takes to the air to play the ball against D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum (15) during first half MLS in Toronto on Saturday March 19, 2022. Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez worked his way up through the lower levels of Spanish soccer before earning his chance with a storied club in Poland. Now Jimenez is turning heads in Major League Soccer, tied for the scoring lead with seven goals in 11 games for Toronto FC. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez finding Toronto FC, MLS to his liking

Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez finding Toronto FC, MLS to his liking

TORONTO — Spanish striker Jesus Jimenez worked his way up through the lower levels of Spanish soccer before earning his chance with a storied club in Poland.

Now he is turning heads in Major League Soccer, tied for the scoring lead with seven goals in 11 games in his first season with Toronto FC.

“I’ve tried to help the team. Maybe I’m lucky, I don’t know,” a smiling Jimenez said in his rapidly improving English. “But I’m happy.”

“Seven goals right now is very good. I try to get more,” he added.

In a season that has seen a revamped Toronto — under new coach and sporting director Bob Bradley — look to incorporate young Canadian talent while dealing with a lengthy injury list, Jimenez has been a bright spot, helping boost the offence along with Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo.

It has been a journey getting here. But asked if he has got his due along the way, Jimenez deflects the question.

“I don’t know. You have to ask them,” he said happily.

Now 28, Jimenez says he was 18 or 19 when he started believing he could make soccer his career.

“I was improving,” he said. “OK, I was in the lower divisions in Spain but I believed that it could be possible … I’m here. So I think everything is possible.”

Jimenez signed with Toronto in early February after four seasons with Gornik Zabrze in Poland, where he scored 43 goals in 134 appearances in all competitions.

Toronto captain Michael Bradley, Bob’s son, said he checked out Jimenez highlights after the Spaniard signed.

“You can see right away how good a player he is,” he said. “You can see how smart he is, you can see how he’s not just a striker who waits around for chances. His ability to come underneath and play football and combine with guys. He makes guys around him better. And he can score goals.”

“The part that you don’t know is what type of person he is,” he added. “And he has come into the group in an incredible way. He has a great way in the team with every single guy.”

Born in Legranes, Jimenez grew up in nearby Fuenlabrada close to Madrid.

An Atletico Madrid supporter, Jimenez notes that former Atletico and Spain striker Fernando Torres also comes from Fuenlabrada. CD Fuenlabrada, the local club which is in the Spanish second tier, plays in the Estadio Fernando Torres.

After a stint with a local club, Jimenez joined the youth system of CD Leganes when he was 16 or 17. He spent two seasons with the reserve team and then went on to spend time with Agrupacion Deportiva Union Adarve (2013-14), Alcorcon B (2014-15), Atletico Pinto (2015) and Club Deportivo Illescas (2015-16) before making the move to CF Talavera de la Reina, helping it win promotion to Spain’s second tier with 26 goals in 33 matches in the 2016-17 season.

That drew the attention of Gornik Zabrze, a storied club that won the Polish title 14 times between 1957 and 1988 and counts star strikers Ernest Pohl and Włodzimierz Lubanski among its alumni.

Gornik was involved in Europa League play, which gave Jimenez a bigger stage to show his skills. The Polish club has enjoyed past success in Europe, reaching the quarterfinals of the European Cup in 1967-68 and finishing runner-up to Manchester City in the European Cup-Winners’ Cup in 1969-70.

Gornik made it to the Cup-Winners’ Cup final by virtue of a coin toss after finishing tied 3-3 on aggregate with Roma after the second leg of their semifinal. There was no penalty shootout back then so a coin decided who would advance.

A Spanish teammate helped him adjust to life with Gornik in Zabrze, an industrial city in southern Poland near Katowice. He says he enjoyed his time there, although — like everywhere else — things changed after his second season when the pandemic struck.

“After that life was different,” he said.

The six-foot Jimenez is listed at 186 pounds but looks more solid with a thick undercarriage. He has the power and technique to ride challenges, can work in close quarters, is good with his head and has a good eye for a run into the penalty box at the right time.

It’s fun to watch when he gets one-on-one with a goalkeeper, albeit not much fun for the ‘keeper. Jimenez knows how to finish.

“Jesus is a very good player. He’s smart. He’s skilful,” said Bob Bradley. “He’s got a really good presence in the group. We keep saying that there’s more there, too. I think we can even push him physically and see even more power and more explosiveness to go with the football part.

“But look, he’s smart. He knows how to position himself in certain kinds of finishes. He knows exactly how he wants to beat the keeper. So you see all those things every day and it’s going to continue to get better.”

Jimenez’s seven goals have come from just 10 shots on target. And TFC’s attack will be further bolstered in July when Italian international star Lorenzo Insigne arrives.

Michael Bradley says Jimenez and Mexican centre back Carlos Salcedo “have come in and established themselves as important players, as leaders.”

“You can see every day how excited they are to be here, how motivated they are.”

Salcedo is a big personality who helps provide the team soundtrack with his musical selections. Jimenez seems a little more laid-back but has an easy smile that is often on display,

The Spaniard can also play provider, with a backheel pass in his arsenal when needed. At Gornik, he also took penalties and spent some time on the left flank.

Fellow TFC striker Ayo Akinola calls Jimenez “a cool guy, very calm, very mellow.”

“He brings out the best of you. I’ve started to notice that,” he added. “He’s very technical, very good with his feet. On the field, off the field, he’s been a great guy.”

When Jimenez’s contract with Gornik expired, he looked around for his next challenge.

“For me when I was in Poland, my goal was to go to other leagues, other countries, to improve my career. MLS was one of my top options,” Jimenez said.

“When Toronto called, it was very easy to decide,” he added.

Jimenez, whose father worked in construction, has an older brother who is due to visit soon. His parents get to watch TFC games, although kickoff is also pretty late back in Spain.

He has not regretted the move to Canada, singing the club’s praises for the way it treats its players and makes newcomers like him welcome. He had expected as much after speaking with former TFC star Victor Vazquez, a fellow Spaniard now with the Los Angeles Galaxy, before signing.

And Jimenez says he has enjoyed the in-game MLS atmosphere, saying fans are enthusiastic without any of the bad blood that can surface between rival club supporters in Europe.

He and his girlfriend have also come to enjoy Toronto. “It’s so beautiful,” he said.

Each road trip is an adventure. Prior to signing with Toronto, he had visited Philadelphia and New York some three years ago on vacation.

“I want to visit every place. I will try,” he said.

Toronto (3-6-2) looks to snap a four-game losing streak when it hosts Orlando City (5-4-2) on Saturday.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 12, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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