Tim Leiweke is many things to many people, but he is not the reliable and experienced defender that Toronto FC so sorely needed once captain Steven Caldwell and fullback Justin Morrow limped off injured on Saturday.
Instead, the man who has done more than almost any other to revitalize the once-downtrodden Major League Soccer club was forced to watch along with every other fan at BMO Field as first Robert Earnshaw and then Quincy Amarikwa – TFC old boys both – heartbreakingly found the back of the net in the last 20 minutes to hand Chicago a share of the spoils in a 2-2 draw. The day before, Leiweke, president and CEO of team owner Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., had addressed the players in private to discuss last week’s announcement of his departure effective June 30, 2015, and was at his magisterial best as he tried to inspire what is his favourite MLSE franchise (the portfolio also includes the NHL’s Maple Leafs and NBA’s Raptors).
“He came in and gave us a fantastic talk, motivational speech, whatever you want to call it and basically told us the faith he’s got in us and we need to start recognizing that for ourselves, how good we are,” said first-year TFC member Bradley Orr.
“He told us a number of things and you walk out the room with your shoulders back feeling 10 foot tall. We reacted in the right way but it’s just unfortunate that they nicked an equalizer in the last minute.
“Moving forward we’ve got to remember those words and have them echoing in our ears and remember what told us. For a very successful man to tell us we were one of, if not the, best teams he’s been involved with speaks volumes.”
Not surprisingly then, some fans and media are painting Leiweke’s departure (and according to some, it may end up being more imminent than next June) as the end of TFC’s relevancy in the hierarchy of Toronto’s sporting spectrum.
Those actually privy to some of the inner workings of the TFC dressing room paint it as anything but, and remain confident that whoever comes in to replace Leiweke will take TFC and soccer every bit as seriously as the former Anschutz Entertainment Group president and CEO did.
“He’s still got the rest of the year and he made it clear he’s not walking out on us or anything like that,” said midfielder Kyle Bekker. “Just from what he’s done in a short period of time I think that’s going to rub off on the next person. Now we’re not a club that can be ignored, we’re definitely a big team in Toronto and that’s the difference he’s made and I think that’s going to go on to the next person and the next person after that so with that he’s done big things for us.”
Certainly, the moves Leiweke to overhaul the roster should have the club on an even keel for seasons to come. The club has top scorer Jermain Defoe under contract for three more seasons after this one, and American World Cup midfielder Michael Bradley locked up until the end of the 2019 campaign. On top of that, the American also persuaded Toronto City Council to buy into his vision and approve a newly renovated, 30,000-seat BMO Field which should be ready by next May.
If nothing else, TFC fans should take heart in the fact that MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum views the team as giving him the best chance of winning a championship, with his trophy cabinet still bare after 18 years of association with MLSE. Given that there’s is no MLS equivalent of Lebron James, Sidney Crosby or anyone else or their ilk – the best soccer players on the planet right now largely ply their trade in Spain – he may be right.
With 15 games to go in the 2014 season, TFC is sitting in third place in the Eastern Conference, and as Leiweke will tell you – having watched the AEG-owned Los Angeles Kings win their first Stanley Cup two years ago after scraping into the postseason as the Western Conference’s last seed – anything can happen once you get to the playoffs.