Tim Leiweke, executive behind David Beckham's Galaxy signing, aims to make statement of intent in new role at MLS strugglers
Toronto FC are on the brink of an extraordinary double swoop for Tottenham's Jermain Defoe and Roma's Michael Bradley, as Tim Leiweke, best known as the man who secured David Beckham's services for LA Galaxy, aims to make his mark as CEO of Maple Leaf Sport and Entertainment, the owners of the long-underperforming MLS side.
Defoe's arrival has been rumored throughout the winter, with reports from Toronto suggesting both that he was being tempted by an extraordinary wage package designed to make him one of the best-paid players in the league and somewhat alleviate the downside of being out of the Premier League spotlight during a World Cup year.
But even as Toronto began to tease their fans with a series of video clips in advance of an anticipated Defoe announcement on Monday, and even as they confirmed the return of former talisman Dwayne de Rosario to the team on Thursday, news of another signing likely to send significant reverberations of a different sort around North American soccer was swirling — as it became clear that Toronto were favorites to secure the signature of Roma and US national team midfielder Bradley.
It is believed Roma will receive a fee of between $7m to $10m, with the player himself getting a five to six year deal worth a reported $6.5m per year – the type of blockbuster deal that last year persuaded Clint Dempsey to return to MLS. As with Defoe, it would be more than enough compensation for the loss of footballing status that comes with swapping life with a contender for a Champions League place for a team yet to play a knockout game in MLS.
Of course the arrival of Defoe and Bradley in the spine of a new-look Toronto would instantly bring the expectation of passing that benchmark as an absolute minimum, even among a Toronto side that can charitably be said to still be taking shape under coach Ryan Nelsen, as he contemplates his first pre-season with the team.
Nelsen will be encouraged by the fact that Defoe has been a goalscorer wherever he has gone, and Bradley is of course the fulcrum of the US national team midfield and key to their World Cup hopes — even if he has found himself out of favor at Rudi Garcia's new-look Roma.
If the two do arrive, Toronto will have the luxury problem of having to restructure the contract of one of their existing two Designated Players Gilberto and Matias Laba to fit in with the existing MLS rules of a maximum of three Designated Players.
But whatever the outcome of the deals, for the first MLS pre-season for several years, a lot of eyes are looking to Toronto in expectation rather than doubt.
It's sometimes hard to remember that when Toronto FC entered MLS, before the hype around the Cascadia teams, before the fan-led campaign that introduced Philadelphia, the Canadians' arrival was seen as a bellwether moment for the culture of the league. Teams like Chicago and DC United had set something of a standard for a growing supporters culture, but the enthusiastic and above all, numerous, Toronto fanbase looked set to take it to the next level.
The trouble was, Toronto have given those fans precious little to cheer about in the intervening years. As non-playoff year followed non-playoff year (Toronto have never made the post-season, unlike both of their Canadian counterparts and later arrivals in the league Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact, who each got there in their sophomore year), that initial burst of enthusiasm has got lost in a series of managerial miscues, underwhelming signings and a general air of haplessness.
The sight of one putative savior, Danny Koevermans, on the verge of tears as he described the experience of playing for "the worst team in the world" during a nine game losing streak in 2012, became an emblematic image of what the Toronto project had become.
So when, at the end of last year, the rumors first started that MLSE and Toronto were on the verge of signing Defoe, it seemed natural to dismiss it as wishful thinking, were it not for the involvement of Leiweke and his track record of achieving the unlikely.
But even as details of the prospective deal began to emerge and give it credibility (including the slightly bizarre but apparently true report of musician Drake intervening to persuade his fan, Defoe, to come to the rapper's hometown team), there still seemed to be something of a gap between the thought of Defoe arriving, and Leiweke's late-November promise that Toronto were on the verge of the biggest signing in MLS history. The addition of Bradley into the mix means that in cash terms at least, if not the relative stature of the players in comparison to Thierry Henry or David Beckham, say, Leiweke's claims may well have some merit.
At the very least they've given a beleagured Toronto fanbase something to cheer about again.
Duncan Fletcher, Waking the Red:
Ever since he arrived in Toronto last summer Tim Leiweke has cast a large shadow over Toronto FC for a few reasons. 1) The man absolutely loves to hear himself talk, 2) He actually seemed to be giving TFC his attention as well as the much larger jobs of the NBA's Raptors and NHL's Maple leafs; 3) He had previously backed up his hype with the LA Galaxy.
So when at the press conference when he fired Kevin Payne, he started talking big about World Cup quality players, from the EPL and Serie A, there was reason for TFC fans to be cautiously hopeful we'd end up with something good. The signing of up and coming Brazilian Gilberto, though filled with plenty of potential, seemed like a bit of a climb down from those statements, but Jermain Defoe's name wouldn't go away, and hey, that's not too shabby at all is it. With some other lesser additions to the team already made and with more to come, this was already qualifying as a successful off season.
Then, boom. Add Michael Bradley to the mix and all of a sudden there's genuine shock and expectations of not just a first ever playoff place but actually seriously competing. Bradley and Defoe should both be very, very good in this league. Management have talked about wanting to add 30 goals this season, which would double last year's output, these signings make that seem possible.
TFC fans have been optimistic before, and there's plenty of precedent for teams misfiring even despite big names so there's a certain wariness around, but the underlying feeling is now that this is a very different TFC under Tim Leiweke. More professional, more ambitious and willing to throw it's cash around to bring in targets that just wouldn't have seemed possible before. We'll have to see if that all translates into more successful, but for once, and for now at least, almost everyone's feeling good about TFC.