Perennially-failing Toronto FC is striking out on a bold new path in 2014 with a change in management that's spending large on big-name Designated Players Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe, and recently, Brazilian World Cup goalkeeper Julio Cesar and is also planning to redesign BMO Field.
The transfer fees and salaries for Bradley and Defoe alone add up to $100 million, signalling a dramatic change in direction for TFC.
But given Toronto's historically mind-boggling poor record and the complications of a World Cup year, there's no guarantee the recharged roster will translate to success in the table. In 2013, TFC recorded an MLS record by failing to make the playoffs for the seventh year in a row and won only six of 34 games, finishing second-to-last in the second-rate Eastern Conference. In the past, Toronto played musical chairs with management, coaches and Designated Players to no avail, despite a soccer specific stadium and a once-enthusiastic fan base.
The difference in this equation is former LA Galaxy CEO and president Tim Leiweke, who brought David Beckham to Los Angeles. Last June, Toronto FC's parent company, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MSLE), that also owns the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors, installed Leiweke as president and CEO. MLSE also hired Major League Soccer's Tim Bezbatchenko as general manager to drag the beleaugered MLS club out of the gutter.
U.S. Soccer had a vested interested in bringing U.S. Men's National Team star Bradley back to the States to train with the National Team for FIFA World Cup and the central midfielder needs high caliber players to train with at his new MLS club. Numerous MLS clubs wanted Bradley, but Leiweke pulled the strings and put up the cash to bring him to Toronto, not the most desirable destination. But Leiweke simultaneously wined and dined Defoe and others, guaranteeing Bradley a striking partner.
Improved stadium in the works
Leiweke is also planning to improve and expand BMO Field.
“We’re committed to working with the city to try to find a vision that significantly enhances the stadium, significantly increases the number of seats in the stadium and gives our fans a European flavour to the stadium," Leiweke told the Toronto Sun. "I think you’ll hear something about that in the very near future. Yes, we’re working on it.”
The Los Angeles Galaxy, Leiweke's former project, became the flagship franchise of MLS after he played his hand. Toronto FC is Major League Soccer's long-time bad penny and will be the ultimate challenge for the new president and CEO.
Toronto signed Bradley, 26, on Jan. 13 on a transfer from Italian Serie A club AS Roma for an MLS record fee of $10 million, topping the $9 million fee for Seattle Sounders forward Clint Dempsey last summer. Bradley has 82 caps for the USMNT over the past eight years and starred for the USA in 2010 World Cup, 2009 Confederations Cup and 2011 Gold Cup. At age 16 in 2004, the central midfielder began his career in MLS with the MetroStars and after the 2005 season moved to the Netherlands, where he attracted global interest.
Within days after signing Bradley, Toronto announced the acquisition of Tottenham Hotspur striker Jermain Defoe for $9.85 million on a four-year contract. The 31-year-old has played more than 250 games for Tottenham and is fifth on the Spurs all-time scoring list with 142 goals and the club's top scorer in Europe with 23 goals.
Goalkeeper Cesar, 34, has 77 caps with the Seleccao, won the 2009 Confederations Cup and represented Brazil at 2010 World Cup, but now is looking for consistent playing time ahead of World Cup in Brazil this June. However, besides starting in a 4-0 FA Cup loss to Everton in January, he hasn't played in any competition since April 2013. But the 6'1 goalkeeper has outstanding credentials and has over 250 appearances at the club level and experience in the UEFA Champions League and CONMEBOL's Copa America. Cesar began his career with Flamengo in 1998 before transferring to Italian giants Inter Milan in 2005. After a seven-year stay, which included a UEFA Champions League title, Cesar signed with English Premier League Queens Park Rangers, which were relegated following the 2012-13 campaign.