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New soccer players Jermain Defoe, left, and Michael Bradley (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
New soccer players Jermain Defoe, left, and Michael Bradley (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

MLS

Toronto FC’s $100-million gamble to appease long-suffering fans Add to ...

They say money doesn’t buy happiness, but try telling that to the 200 or so Toronto FC fans who eagerly crammed into the upper deck of Toronto’s Real Sports Bar and Grill on Monday.

Bearing witness to inarguably the most grandiose soccer press conference in the city’s history, the jubilant supporters routinely broke into song as the Major League Soccer team introduced nearly $100-million of soccer talent in the shapes of striker Jermain Defoe and midfielder Michael Bradley.

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But this day wasn’t about the money.

As an organization valued at $2.25-billion, according to Forbes magazine, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns TFC, has cash to spare, but the toll of seven consecutive losing seasons had left Canada’s original MLS franchise on the precipice of oblivion in Toronto’s crowded and competitive sports scene.

MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke jokingly described the moves as “financial suicide” – Defoe signed a deal reportedly worth $8.3-million (all figures U.S.) a season for four years; Bradley got $6.5-million a season for six years; and the club paid in excess of $20-million in transfer fees to acquire the players. But Leiweke insisted this was a chance to reward the team’s fans for the years of heartbreaking on-field ineptitude that went before.

“These fans for seven years have been unbelievable,” he said. “They changed the fortunes of this league, they changed the value of these clubs, they changed the environment in this community.

“They taught us all what it means to be a passionate fan of TFC. This is a payback to them today – they earned it, they deserve and it’s full credit to you and your seven years.”

Will it be enough to win back a fan base that was once the envy of the entire league? That’s the gamble. The 21,140-seat BMO Field is hardly on par with Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium as a revenue generator, but the team has an eye on expanding the cosy facility down the road to accommodate what it hopes will be a more robust support, one that it hopes will vastly exceed the average of 18,131 fans who turned out last season to watch the team win just six league games.

But Leiweke is convinced the market will reward MLSE’s financial commitment to rebuilding the franchise. “We’re going to be the first $50-million gross-revenue club in the history of soccer in North America, going all the way back to the [New York] Cosmos [of the now-defunct North American Soccer League]. Our owners believe in that, we believe in that,” he said. “If people saw what we saw in the potential of this marketplace, they’d understand why we’re doing it.”

The addition of 31-year-old English international Defoe, who is the fifth-highest goal scorer in the history of his English Premier League club, Tottenham Hotspur, should certainly add more excitement to the game-day experience. And Bradley, a 26-year-old U.S. national team mainstay who moves from Italian side AS Roma with his best days arguably still to come, will add more dynamism and steel to the middle of the park.

Bradley raved about the vision of the club he has been sold by Leiweke.

“What they’re trying to build is something really special, something unique, something different than anything else going on in Major League Soccer, and honestly, something different than anything going in North American soccer,” he said. “As a player you want to be a part of that. … It took all of two seconds for me to understand that I would be coming to a place where I would be surrounded by people with that motivation and commitment.”

Now the onus falls on head coach Ryan Nelsen to blend Defoe and Bradley, as well as incoming attackers Gilberto and Dwayne De Rosario, into a cohesive team unit. The new stars help, but as the New Zealander bluntly put it, “This doesn’t mean we’re going to win championships.”

That’s the other half of the gamble. Leiweke has certainly put the parts in play. As the man most responsible for bringing David Beckham to North America when he was in charge of the Los Angeles Galaxy, he knows all about rebranding a losing entity.

Alexi Lalas, the general manager of the Galaxy when Beckham first arrived in L.A. in 2007, was dismissed by Leiweke when the experiment didn’t have early success. But he is full of respect for how his former boss turned the team around and helped lead them to back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011-12.

“This has all the hallmarks of a Tim Leiweke production,” Lalas said of TFC’s splashy moves. “It is big, it is bold, it is expensive and it is designed to grab attention and to titillate, but also with an additional and important element of success.

“Because that is the missing ingredient and probably he would admit the most important ingredient right now: It’s what makes this entire production come out the other side as a winner.”

Long-suffering TFC certainly hopes Lalas is right.

Follow on Twitter: @paulattfield

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