Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. boss Tim Leiweke spent last week racking up air miles in Europe, searching for a soccer player – or a saviour – who can put an end to Toronto FC’s longstanding woes.
But unlike the many unsuccessful recruiting drives the Major League Soccer club attempted in years past, this sojourn is perhaps more critical to the future of MLSE, since it will send a message about how serious the new president and chief executive is about rebuilding the entire sports conglomerate into a winner, from the ice to the court and on the pitch.
Because when it comes to repairing MLSE – which also includes the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and NBA’s Toronto Raptors – Leiweke believes Toronto FC is the easiest problem to fix.
The addition of two key designated players can change the team’s fortunes fast, he believes. Another 30 goals could turn the feeble club, which has not made the MLS playoffs in its first seven seasons, into a contender. But if the TFC rebuild goes awry, that may not bode well for his other projects, since rebuilding the Maple Leafs and Raptors are much-more complex feats to engineer, constrained by salary caps and draft picks.
“The soccer team will be one that will be completely fixed,” Leiweke said in a lengthy interview with The Globe and Mail’s Report on Business Magazine, which will be published Friday. “We’re very specific on who we want. We’re down to a half-dozen guys.”
Though Leiweke isn’t divulging which players the club is targeting, last week’s recruiting trip took team executives to England and Italy. It is the first of several such search-and-sign missions Leiweke will embark upon with TFC head coach Ryan Nelson and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko between now and January. The idea is to meet with player agents, then with players themselves, hoping to attract a game-changer across the Atlantic.
Leiweke, of course, is the man who brought David Beckham to the Los Angeles Galaxy, coaxing the aging English star with tens of millions of dollars in a deal that was as much about marketing than it was about soccer. Leiweke acknowledges TFC needs talent on the field more than it needs a brand name, so the focus will be on goal output and less about face recognition.
“We are well beyond a star in name and brand only saving this franchise,” Leiweke said. “We are zealots on coming back with at least one of these players that has the character and the quality to change this franchise once and for all, and we’re going to find him.
“I’m focused, and I’m pissed off. We need to solve this thing.”
For Leiweke, who has been on the job since spring, the real work starts now.
The Raptors won’t be a fast rebuild. The team, which lacked a pick in this summer’s NBA draft, is faced with restocking bare shelves. The Maple Leafs – off to a promising start after last season’s near-upset of the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs – are further along.
“The Leafs should expect to win, and we do. As so, because of the year that we had last year, we want to continue to build upon that success. So there is an expectation there and we accept it,” he said.
“The Raptors are going to take time because of the system that we have with the NBA, and the reality of not only the contracts we have today but the lack of resources that we have – including we didn’t have one pick in the draft this summer. So that may take a little more patience.”
When it comes to resources, none of the franchises will lack cash. Leiweke was never known to be tight with the budget while running Anschutz Entertainment Group in L.A., where the NHL’s Kings, and Galaxy won championships.
He knows MLSE has never struggled to make money. Profit is one of the few things he doesn’t need to worry about.
“There are a lot of things that work here, but I think the thing that is most important doesn’t work here, which is we have to win.”