Faint wisps of firework vapour hung in the frigid spring air of Exhibition Place late Saturday afternoon, but joyously, for those in attendance at BMO Field, there were no signs of a smoke screen.
Toronto FC is 2-0 for the first time in franchise history, and thanks to the high-priced additions of Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley, Julio Cesar et al., the team looks to have finally abdicated its claim to Toronto’s throne of infernal embarrassment that Toronto Mayor Rob Ford seems hell-bent on monopolizing all by himself.
Of course, Ford thrust himself into the TFC equation late last week by being the lone voice of dissension as the rest of Toronto City Council’s executive committee approved a $10-million loan as part of a $120-million plan to redevelop and expand the team’s stadium to keep pace with its new-found ambition.
But Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of TFC owner, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., is not about to have his painstakingly crafted bubble burst by such shenanigans. The American sports executive, who previously transformed Major League Soccer’s showpiece team, the Los Angeles Galaxy, into a perennial contender with the dogged pursuit and acquisition of David Beckham, was in attendance Saturday to watch his pet project blossom in early spring after a long winter of malcontent.
The day before officially stepping into MLSE’s top job last June, Leiweke was on hand at BMO Field for a 1-0 loss to Real Salt Lake, attempting to absorb where it had all gone wrong as the team limped its way to just six wins in 34 games to finish second from bottom in the Eastern Conference.
The franchise that had once set the standard for MLS fandom and the North American soccer experience was suffering on the field, at the box office and beyond, and Leiweke turned to those who had bore witness to its demise for advice.
“He came up and watched the second half with me in the stands and we talked the whole time,” said Phil Tobin, the president of the Red Patch Boys, TFC’s largest supporters’ group. “He wanted to know what I thought about expansion of the facility, he wanted to know about the numbers in our group, what the height of the numbers in our group, things like that.
“And I think that’s where he based a lot of his concern out of because I kind of gave it to him. I don’t think [Leiweke’s predecessor] Richard Peddie ever offered to come down and talk to us, but here’s Tim Leiweke, the guy calling all the shots and I’m said, ‘Well, you guys have a mess. We’re watching [the franchise] dwindle in front of us.’”
The sold-out crowd on Saturday showed just how quickly Leiweke’s moves have restored some of the lustre to a listing sports property. Defoe scored the only goal against D.C. United – his third in two games – and having the England international on board is the perfect insurance policy to negate obstacles that would have tripped this team up in years past.
The abysmal playing surface – “As bad as I’ve ever seen in the MLS,” according to long-time D.C. United player turned head coach Ben Olsen – the city’s current cold snap and the weight of expectations could all have been used as excuses if anything untoward had occurred. But though it was anything but “the beautiful game” on Saturday, this current iteration has been steeled by the new additions and appears to have finally turned the page on seven years of playoff-less failure.
But Leiweke is not about to stop there. In a report Sunday in England’s Daily Mail, the MLSE chief says he wants to see MLS become one of the world’s top five soccer leagues, and eventually envisions a day when a global super league means clubs such as TFC get to compete with Europe’s elite in “something more meaningful than a preseason friendly.”
The presence of Defoe and Bradley, among others, on Saturday may already have forced the club to rethink the way it handles post-game media interviews, as around 30 media members crammed into what is arguably the smallest dressing room among the major Toronto sports teams. Inevitably, everyone was looking to talk to TFC’s two biggest stars, leaving a frustrated equipment manager with the thankless task of trying to weave his way through the throng with a hopper full of sweaty jerseys.
The team, the media and the fans will just have to get used to it. Toronto FC is not going to win every game this season, and as manager Ryan Nelsen admitted, “We’ll play a lot better than that and we’ll lose games.” But there certainly seems to be a different atmosphere around the Toronto FC dressing room, one that’s not lost on the youngest member of Saturday’s starting lineup.
“I’ve been here long enough to know that the culture has changed here 100 per cent, 180 degrees,” said 20-year-old centre back Doneil Henry, who is quietly forming an excellent defensive tandem with TFC captain Steven Caldwell. Given that this traditionally porous squad is on pace to concede just 17 goals over the course of the season, easily bettering the previous best of 41, he may well be right.