Soccer

Wheeler: Toronto FC - Questions asked and answered

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Gareth Wheeler
1/14/2014 3:00:16 PM
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Toronto and Major League Soccer are still a buzz. Toronto FC unveiled prized acquisitions forward Jermain Defoe and US Men's National team midfielder Michael Bradley Monday in front of hundreds of supporters, the who's who of MLSE and a throng of media usually reserved for Toronto Maple Leafs duty.  Monday was a big deal.  We've done the song and dance to a lesser scale with this team before, but the track played this time was from another album altogether: a compilation likely produced by Drake.  It sounded really good.

The new, positive direction of Toronto FC doesn't cast aside hard feelings of seven years of disappointment.  There will be many who remain cynical; believing this will crumble like previous renditions.  These moves are a good start; a giant, very expensive step in the right direction.

The new story has just begun.  After all, Tim Leiweke only took over control of MLSE in June.  Much has revealed itself in recent weeks. There is still much we don't know. 

Here's where we stand at present time.

What we know...

Money Talks

Defoe and Bradley said all the rights things.  They are coming to the right place and are excited about the opportunity.  The famous line from Jerry Maguire is more appropriate: "SHOW ME THE MONEY".   Dollars.  Bucks.  Cash.  Quiche. Toronto FC flexed their financial muscle and their targets obliged.  Quadrupling or getting paid six times your salary makes it an offer not to be refused.  Leiweke called having three designated players (Gilberto the third) on significant dollars as "financial suicide."  A line that catches the ear and shows any previous financial restraint has been thrown out the window.  Soccer-wise in North America, these salaries make no sense, but for an organization whose profits from their cash cow the Toronto Maple Leafs are protected by a salary cap, the investment into MLSE's suddenly important side project is mitigated.  Throwing money at players was the easiest way to try to make a seven-year problem go away.  Toronto FC joins the likes of the LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls with the ability to spend out the nose on the best-designated players possible.  Show them the money and top players will come.

Leiweke: Ambition and Network 

The MLSE President/CEO sat on the stage like a proud father.  There was a rightful "I told you so" vibe about it.  Leiweke promised significant changes.  He has delivered.  Leiweke has put an end to any notion that MLSE won't spend.  The Bell/Rogers MLSE ownership is a different bunch than the Teacher's Pension.  It begs to question whether the Raptors would have spent into the luxury tax long ago if Leiweke were around sooner.  Leiweke's global sporting connections are Teflon.  It's not name dropping if you can actually call upon the biggest names in the world to help.  David Beckham. Player agents.  Owners.  Celebrity.  Leiweke has access to all these channels and has used them to foster personal and professional relationships.  This goes beyond players to business and developmental partnerships.  The motivation here is all in the name of winning.  Leiweke acknowledges he'll spend whatever it takes to reach that goal.  Monday is only the beginning.  He dropped the term 'super club.'  Maple Leafs and Raptors fans should take notice.  Reputations are changing.  Belief is real. 

The Power of Drake

Drake as Global Ambassador seemed nothing more than a flashy marketing move when announced.  It must be said, the cache of Drake seems to be widely underrated, at least by this onlooker.  His influence is tangible.  Defoe glowed when describing his adoration for Drake.  If Leiweke is the right hook in laying the body blow of recruitment, Drake is the left.   "I was out in London one night having dinner when this number came up.  I answered it and it was Drake.  It was surreal, to be honest.  I felt special.  He said it was a fantastic city and I'd enjoy it," described Defoe.  He was glowing.  Every good team needs a finisher in front of goal.  Drake can be just that in player recruitment.  Weird, isn't it?

A Happy Manager

As with all previous regime/coaching changes at TFC, the talent cupboard was bare when Ryan Nelsen took over a season ago.  He was hired late, and a slow moving conveyer belt of roster moves followed.  By the end of the season, Nelsen seemed worn out, absolutely knackered by the process and growing frustration.  This is no longer the case.  Nelsen has the players.  They've been locked up early.  It's up to him to manage his team accordingly.  And the manager is ecstatic.  It's clear speaking to him over the last month, there is a newfound energy about him, almost giddiness at the potential of what's at his disposal.  What system the team will play and how his new assets will be used are up in the air.  This will be a big test for the second year coach. No pressure. 

What we don't know...

Will TFC Finally Win?

It's the most popular question asked: is this team now a winner?  It's too soon to know.  We can say with confidence the club will be more competitive.  Defoe and Bradley immediately become the best players to wear TFC red.  The jury will be out on Gilberto.  General manager Tim Bezbatchenko seems to have a vast understanding of the salary cap and league rules.  The ability of the front office to properly evaluate talent will be critical.  Other factors will obviously play a determining role.  Injuries, form, further transactions, managerial decisions and how soon the new players can gel will be decisive.  Big spending doesn't guarantee anything in MLS.  That being said, anything short of a competitive team and playoffs would be a disappointment.  Matias Laba designated player contract needs to be dealt with.  And the team needs more defensive/midfield depth.

How Does MLS Feel About These Moves? 

Leiweke was asked how others around MLS reacted to the big money spent.  "I'd say some of our partners would say we've lost our minds."  So much for the fiscal restraint the league predicates itself on. Beckham's move to Los Angeles was self-explanatory and helped grow the league.  Many will believe Toronto over-spent, making Defoe and Bradley the league's most expensive players (along with Clint Dempsey).  It takes MLS to another level, whether they are ready, like it or not.  The moves won't be looked upon fondly in some circles. Toronto FC did what they could and felt they had to do.  There will be those at MLS who would prefer Bradley, a top American player, to play in an American market.  Toronto FC isn't scheduled to feature in any nationally televised game south of the border.  This will change.  But the draw of Toronto in the US pales in comparison to other American markets in television numbers.  And its television ratings where the league needs to grow. 

Die-Hards Remain Loyal. What About The Masses?

Boisterous supporters helped make the festive environment at Real Sports Bar & Grill Monday.  While attendance has dwindled at BMO Field, a hardened, resilient contingent has remained true.  It's been a tough go for these supporters, spending more than just dollars, but emotional collateral on a team that hasn't delivered.  Nothing will sway the devout.  But will the masses follow suit and come back on board?  Expect calculated efforts by the club and media owners to keep pushing Defoe/Bradley to the spotlight.  They are more than just players - they are marketing tools.  Leiweke is expecting sellouts all season.  At an average of $28 per ticket, he may get his wish.  Long-term loyalty and interest from more than the die-hards is the goal.  Ticket prices will surely rise as winning football comes to BMO.  Stadium expansion and makeover is also in the works.  It all costs money.  What will it cost the fans?  And what are they willing to pay?

Toronto FC Celebrates (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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