New MLSE boss Tim Leiweke says he likes the management teams he has in place with the Leafs and Raptors. But he is withholding his verdict on Toronto FC, at least publicly, for the time being.
The struggling MLS team is 2-10-8 under president Kevin Payne and manager Ryan Nelsen, who continue to overhaul the roster in their first year at the helm of the perennial underachiever.
“This one’s different than the other two (teams) because we’re in the middle of the season,” Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said in an interview this week. “And so I don’t think it’s fair or proper to get into an analysis, an assessment or a yearend on Kevin and Nellie because I think we’re in the middle of it here.
“Are we happy where we’re at? No. And they understand I’m not happy where we’re at. Do I hold them accountable and blame them for the decisions? No, I think they probably inherited most of these decisions. They didn’t make all of these decisions.
“Have we done as well as we would have hoped to do, even with the bad decisions they had to inherit? No, and I think they’d admit it. But I think what we need to do as an organization, all of us, the hand we were dealt is the hand we were dealt, we all knew it going in. And now what we need to do is not complain about it, not bitch about it, not revisit it.
“I think we’ve got to focus every day on saying how do we fix this and get better. And that’s what I’m encouraging all of us to do, including me. That this needs to be going forward, how do we make this a better organization, let’s not revisit what got us here.”
Leiweke spoke favourably of Payne— “He knows where the bodies are buried and he knows what it takes to build a championship team” — in a June 4 in-house interview aired on YouTube. In the same video, he said he was looking forward to getting to know the coaches.
While Leiweke, who oversaw the Los Angeles Galaxy during his time in charge of AEG, told The Canadian Press he would withhold judgment on TFC, he seemed to offer several signals in the interview.
Payne, who has been in the league from Day 1, and Nelsen, a rookie manager who began his playing career in MLS, have complained about officiating throughout the season.
Leiweke, asked about Saturday’s 0-0 tie with the New York Red Bulls, acknowledged that Toronto was “not catching any breaks.” But he refused to dwell on it.
“I tend to believe that sitting here and revisiting those calls doesn’t serve much of a purpose,” he explained. “And so we probably have to as an organization spend less time bitching and more time just moving on and understanding that sometimes that’s the way those calls are going to go.”
Leiweke feels a keen connection to MLS, in part because he recalls a time “where there was a question whether it (the league) was going to make it.”
At one point, AEG owned six of the league’s 10 teams. Leiweke watched it grow, in part because of the off-field success and packed stands in Toronto during the franchise’s early days.
“So there’s a large part of me that feels the pain here more with TFC than we probably do with the other teams (Leafs and Raptors) because they had such an amazing thing that was going on here, they were such a vibrant part of changing the league and the way people viewed us. And people that wanted to come in and invest in the league. TFC made a huge impact and it was because of the fans and the overwhelming support that we got and how well we were doing.
“So the good news is I tend to believe that TFC and Major League Soccer are a little bit different than the other two (Leafs and Raptors) because of the pains and the trials and the tribulations and the blood, sweat and tears that we put into this league to try to help it survive.
“The bad news is it makes it even more painful for what we’re going through now, because you clearly understand what those fans are going through.”
MLSE paid $10-million for Toronto FC’s expansion fee prior to the club joining the league in 2007. The new New York franchise will pay at least $100-million.
“I guess that’s the good news,” Leiweke said. “The sport and the league have done extremely well. And this team has done well. But we’ve lost our way and we’ve got to find it, we’ve got to get it back.”
To that end, MLSE is looking at upgrading BMO Field and the marketing of the team.
“It’s a little bit easier for the Leafs and the Raptors because we were at the end of the year and so we made some decisions on the Raptors and we made some decisions on the Leafs,” Leiweke said. “And I am extremely comfortable with both of those management teams and where we’re headed.”
Being in the middle of the season isn’t stopping Leiweke from making his thoughts known to the TFC brain trust.
Nelsen has said he’d like to fix the rest of his roster before bringing in a star designated player, so the new DP has a proper supporting cast. Leiweke, who brought David Beckham to MLS, disagrees.
He believes if you find the right designated player, you sign them. But he learned the hard way that having the right DP won’t make a difference if you have the wrong coach.
“Philosophically there’s probably a few changes that I’m asking them to think about,” Leiweke said. “I know there’s a debate, for example, do you bring the DP in when it’s the final piece of the puzzle. I don’t agree with that. I think the DP has to be part of your culture and your character and you’ve got to build around great DPs.
“I know in Los Angeles, the first year we brought David in, it was a disaster. And by the way some of the disaster was self-created. I made a bad mistake on the coach. We didn’t have the right system in place, we didn’t make the playoffs and it was chaos.
“But we turned it around very quickly and by the next year, we were a playoff team.”
The Galaxy coach in question was Ruud Gullit, a former star Dutch player who had managed Chelsea, Newcastle and Feyenoord before succeeding Canadian Frank Yallop at the Galaxy helm after Beckham’s first year.
Leiweke believes Gullit “underestimated the league and kind of probably didn’t think it was good as it turned out it was.”
For Leiweke, many overseas coaches make the mistake of trying to impose a European system on a North American team.
“And by the way I think this applies to the history of TFC occasionally too, and they don’t understand this league,” he said, in what could be seen most recently as a reference to Dutch manager Aron Winter. “It takes a long time for them to begin to understand this league.”
The MLSE boss says newcomers don’t understand the athleticism, endurance, durability and work ethic of the North American player, not to mention the travel in the league.
“What I realized is you have to put (in) someone (as coach) that understands the league and not try to change the league. You’re not going to change the league, you’re not going to bring another style and another system and suddenly be able to be successful in the league.
“Because at the end of the day there is a certain style of play and a certain quality with our league that you have to learn to be a part of. So we learned that in L.A. and when Bruce (Arena) came along, he did an extremely good job at taking our youth and our development and then our veteran guys, including our DPs, and finding a system that played into the strengths of the league. And that’s when we began to have great success.”