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Wheeler: Hope finally arrives at Toronto FC

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Gareth Wheeler
1/8/2014 9:19:24 PM
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Hope.  That's all Toronto FC supporters have asked for.
  
Wins have been priority, too but it's true, unmitigated hope of positive direction that's been desired.  Progress. Commitment. Hope.

Hope has been fleeting before. Julian de Guzman, the clubs first designated player brought hope as did the addition of hometown hero Dwayne De Rosario. Toronto FC turning orange, the Dutch 'total football' revolution under Aron Winter brought hope as well.  But that's about it.

Spare me hype surrounding some unknown international prodigy that has come and gone, or the legendary Mista. Genuine belief has been temporary and few and far between.

Unfulfilled promise. Pandering of false hope. Rinse, wash, repeat.

Then Wednesday happened.  True hope came calling. As often the case may be, good things came in three; each story bigger in importance, potential impact and surprise.

De Rosario's return to Toronto was publicly confirmed with a Thursday press conference ahead. My colleague Luke Wileman reported coveted Tottenham striker Jermain Defoe will land in Toronto this weekend with an expected Monday introductory press conference to follow, unveiling the prized acquisition. The bells and whistles surrounding Defoe's arrival are said to be impressive. Lastly, the most audacious, unexpected news of all; a deal all but done to bring 26-year-old US international midfielder Michael Bradley to TFC in the absolute prime of his career. Surprised? Yes we are. 

Three signings don't get much bigger than this in MLS. Make it four with last month's arrival of Brazilian Gilberto. If no curveballs are thrown and once the ink is dry, just like that, the inferior, miserable, beaten down landscape of Toronto FC forever changed.

Toronto FC's new promo campaign, 'It's A Bloody Big Deal! – 01.13.14' couldn't ring more true.  The YouTube video shows a bald-headed man spit take in shock, presumably about Defoe's arrival. Well add another spit take for Bradley; the kind of choke on your coffee and have it pour out your nose sort of disbelief.  In North American soccer circles, this is the kind of impact and magnitude we're talking about.

Defoe entering the fray isn't much a secret.  The 31-year-old English international had fallen out of favour at White Hart Lane.  The crafty forward still has pace and ability and could have a similar impact in MLS to Robbie Keane. Toronto FC spared no expense to convince Defoe Toronto was right for him. Flights, houses, family considerations - Toronto bent over backwards, realizing treatment and paycheck would be sufficient to supplant a Premier League caliber talent and bring him to Canada. Many expect Defoe to score 30 goals in Major League Soccer.  Along with on-field expectations, off-field ambassadorship is expected. Defoe instantly becomes one of MLS top players.

Ditto for Bradley. A work engine in the central midfield, the current AS Roma player is a warrior. The ferocity of Bradley, with ability to move forward in attack, would make him a special breed in MLS, where most central midfielders are either preferred attacking options or stay at home, hold the shape kind of players. Bradley is an all-action type player, and all-important for the US Men's National team and a move to MLS comes at a peculiar time with World Cup preparations first and foremost. US Men's National team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was critical of Clint Dempsey's move to Seattle last fall. So a return to North America comes as a shock. 

The story behind the potential move has yet to be revealed, but considerable dollars are at play. A rumoured salary ballpark of $6.5 million per year would do the trick, roughly six times his current salary. Playing time is also an issue. The arrival of Kevin Strootman last summer, along with last week's signing of Radja Nainggolan put the writing on the wall at Roma: Bradley must leave.

Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star reports upwards of $100 million is being committed to Defoe and Bradley in transfer fees and salary. It's an incredible commitment for soccer in this city. These kinds of dollars cannot be justified by pure economics of the game alone. The MLS salary cap for 2013 before designated player commitments sat at just shy of $3 million.

MLSE obviously has the funds but to make this kind of financial commitment to soccer and a team that had operating revenue in the ballpark of $4.5 million last season (according to Forbes) shows true ambition. This is what it takes to compete. For Bradley, whose father Bob is a former US National team coach, to choose a Canadian club no less over a US-based team speaks to the 'show me the money' type mentality of the modern game.

Credit Tim Leiweke. He said he would turn Toronto FC around, and quick.  This is beyond the expected. Dion Phaneuf salaries to soccer players in Toronto will never make sense. But MLSE using its financial strength to turn an embarrassment into a pillar of the organization is money well spent. Many south of the border will question what a move like Bradley's says about the growth of MLS. I'd argue it has less to do with MLS than it does Leiweke. With a network, resources and desire to win, he's what TFC desperately needed.

MLS plays a big role in player acquisition and obviously contracts, which they control. Toronto FC failed to play nice in the sandbox regarding specific targets and team performance in recent years. Squabbling and the perennial disappointment of TFC, whose supporters are credited for league growth and expansion, was a black eye for MLS headquarters. 

Leiweke was an ideal buffer between club and league. There's a history and understanding. It then made perfect sense to hire the young and bright Tim Bezbatchenko, an MLS staffer to take over as general manager - a calculated move, facilitating congruence with MLS to provide much needed stability. It has not been disclosed who is funding the transfers. MLSE stepping up assuming the cost would be seen as extending the olive branch.
 
Leiweke's fingerprints are all over these transactions. They signal a donning of a new era for the organization. MLSE has a face. It's Leiweke, and all that comes with him. In a city with too few victories and forced tradition rather than substance, Leiweke is filling a void, one handshake and dollar at a time.  

These signings are an investment as will a stadium makeover in the coming years. It's part of a bigger plan, where reputation speaks for itself. For MLSE to gain credibility, they need to show they are serious about winning.  No more talk; actions.  

No more wrangling with agents. No more disagreement with the league. No more ostracizing fans. Moves like these wins people over. This is how you win. This is how you sell hope.

The cynic will remain. Signings alone don't equal results. Even more work is to be done to the roster. The heavy lifting is near complete. Toronto FC will be able to compete.
 
True hope.  That's all it takes.  It's a reasonable thought that the vibe, the fun, and actual winning football can all live simultaneously at BMO Field.  We hope.

@WheelerTSN
gareth.wheeler@bellmedia.ca

Tim Leiweke (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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