TORONTO — MLSE boss Tim Leiweke wasted little time Monday reminding everyone that despite the star power about to join him at the podium, Toronto FC had yet to win anything.
He also acknowledged that the unprecedented spending spree on marquee players Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley, on top of Gilberto’s signing last month, is being seen as fiscal insanity in some quarters.
“I’d say some of our partners think we’ve lost our minds,” said Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
At some US$10 million apiece, Defoe and Bradley each broke the MLS record for transfer fees. To put that further in perspective, their fees double the expansion fee MLSE paid before entering the league in 2007.
It’s like telling your accountant you want to buy three Bentleys at once. And that’s before you add high seven-figure annual salaries and Gilberto’s package.
Under Major League Soccer rules, the sky’s the limit with DP salaries — only US$390,000 of a DP’s annual pay count against a team’s US$3.1-million salary cap this season.
“To do one DP is a smart move, to do two DPs is not the smartest thing we’ve ever done and to do three is financial suicide,” Leiweke told a raucous news conference Monday announcing the signing of Defoe and Bradley.
“We don’t have enough seats to make economic sense out of this,” he added later.
Leiweke and Toronto FC, backed by buckets of MLSE cash, are taking a leap of faith and asking soccer fans to come with them — with the three designated players leading the way.
After the MLSE board dug deep into its corporate pocket, Leiweke reached for the words of Bobby Kennedy as he tried to capture the start of a soccer Camelot.
“Some people see things as they are and say ’Why?’ Others dream of what can be and they say ’Why not.”’
“Today is why not,” Leiweke added. “Why can’t we be great?”
Judging from the chanting, singing fans looking down from the balcony of the hangar-sized Real Sports Bar & Grill, the early reviews are deliriously positive.
Defoe, who will stay at London’s Tottenham until the end of next month, was clearly moved by the warm welcome.
“To come here and to have a reception like that is unbelievable. Such a great feeling, I feel at home already,” he said.
And why not. A double-decker bus with the Toronto FC logo and the words “It’s a Bloody Big Deal” was parked outside.
Defoe — a slender five foot seven sheathed in a smart suit and tie — said all the right things, explaining he was here “to win trophies and do my best for the club and the team.”
Bradley came out next, a model of intensity with laser-like eyes and shaved head over a black shirt.
“I can tell you all I have never been more excited, more determined and more motivated for any challenge in my entire career,” he said.
The families for both players watched from the front row with Bradley’s infant son Luca, wearing a Toronto FC jersey, gurgling in his mother’s arms.
Leiweke, who called the signings a “payback” to the fans for seven years of patience, sees Season 1 of the new Toronto FC as a loss-leader.
It will take a year or two to get to the point “where it makes financial sense,” he added.
A revamped, renovated BMO Field is part of the MLSE vision “to take soccer to the next level.”
“Our owners gave us the ability to say ’What could we do?” Leiweke said.
“We’re going to be the first $50-million gross-revenue club in the history of soccer in North America, going all the way to the Cosmos. Our owners believe in that, we believe in that.
“If people saw what we saw in the potential of this marketplace, they’d understand why we’re doing it. But there are a lot of people that don’t understand, I’m OK with that.
“I also understand our organization now has a target on its back. People will say we spent too much. I spent the weekend reading a wonderful article from across the pond that ripped us a new one and said that guys like Jermain were coming here to retire.
“We’ll show them. And I hope there’s a few more of those articles. We’re going to post them up on the board here and in the locker-room and I think it will drive all of us.”
The MLSE boss called the acquisition of the 31-year-old Defoe, 26-year-old Bradley and 24-year-old Gilberto “a very very dramatic statement” in how MLS is perceived.