Soccer

Wileman: Leiweke's departure could lead to uncertainty for TFC

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Luke Wileman
8/21/2014 5:50:12 PM
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In a short time at the helm, Tim Leiweke has made a massive impact on Toronto FC and his upcoming departure as president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment will likely lead to some uncertainty as to how the club will move forward.

After seven years of failure at TFC, Leiweke started the job of dragging the club off its knees and giving it relevance again in the country's biggest media market. He has made big progress, but the task is nowhere near finished, and the departure of Leiweke will raise questions about Toronto's future ability to compete as one of the top two or three power brokers in Major League Soccer.

In MLS, you don't necessarily need to spend mega bucks to bring success – look at last year's two MLS Cup finalists, Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake for example - but with Leiweke in charge the goal wasn't just to be good in MLS, it was to become a "super club." He made big, bold promises, and he certainly delivered.

On a cold, January day Toronto FC made one of the biggest splashes in Major League Soccer history, introducing not one, but two Designated Players arriving in the league from Europe. The signings of Jermain Defoe from Tottenham Hotspur and Michael Bradley from Roma marked a day in the club's history that can only be matched in importance by the day the franchise was launched.

"A very simple saying we will steal from the Kennedy's is appropriate today," Leiweke said when opening the press conference on that day back in January. "Some people see things as they are and say why. Others dream of what can be and they say why not. Today is why not. Why can't we be great?"

It was a day that made a big impact within the city of Toronto, but also changed the landscape across Major League Soccer. Those deals set a new standard for MLS, but they also saved the club from obscurity. Toronto had to commit what Leiweke called "financial suicide" to make the signings, but it was the only option at the time. In Leiweke's own words, "the patient was dying." The club was on "life support." You can't put a price on saving a club.

Since bringing David Beckham to LA Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007, Leiweke shown he has the ability to operate superbly in the global football environment. That ability is something Toronto FC lacked in the past, and will need to ensure they establish post-Leiweke if they are to compete on the biggest stage.

Without Leiweke there is no Defoe in Toronto. Without Leiweke there probably wouldn't be the signing of Michael Bradley either. It was his contacts, negotiating skills and sales charm that made those moves a possibility. Having him in charge of TFC opened doors. He also managed to convince the board of directors to splash out enormous sums of money to make those deals a reality.

Leiweke's arrival in Toronto was a big win for the MLS team because of his soccer background. He had already achieved a lot within the sports and entertainment business, but he also had a track record in MLS. His interest in the team and the league meant he invested a lot of time into fixing the club. While others in that role may give more time and energy to the Maple Leafs and Raptors, Leiweke was just as invested in getting things right at Toronto FC.

He fired TFC's vastly experienced president and general manager Kevin Payne and appointed rookie GM Tim Bezbatchenko from the league office. He stuck with head coach Ryan Nelsen. It's still too early to say whether those moves will prove to be a success, but at this stage the club is on course for its first ever playoff appearance.

So as Leiweke exits, it will be intriguing to see how big the impact will be on Toronto FC. Will they still choose to go after the big names with the "anything is possible," approach? Or will they be much more reserved in their ambitions? Either way, Leiweke has laid a foundation and there is still much building to be done.

Leiweke Defoe Bradley Nelsen (Photo: The Canadian Press)

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(Photo: The Canadian Press)
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