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Moving Toward a United State

Times Staff Writer

In the otherwise unremarkable downtown Los Angeles office of one of the most influential figures in American sports, one item stands out.

Amid the tennis and hockey and boxing and basketball memorabilia, a red Manchester United jersey, signed by the players and framed, hangs on a wall not far from Tim Leiweke’s desk.

Red as in a red rag to a bull.

Manchester United is where Leiweke wants to be. Not in person, but as a league. As president of Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) and chairman of the board of Major League Soccer, Leiweke sees the financial and sporting potential of MLS teams if they can be raised to the level of their English Premier League counterparts.

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The problem is, how to do it?

“To me, that’s still one of the best-run sports organizations in the world,” Leiweke said of Manchester United.

And so, at a time when the Kings, for whom he also serves as president, are idled by the NHL lockout and AEG is involved in other activities including the WTA Championships at Staples Center and MLS Cup 2004 at the Home Depot Center, Leiweke took time out to talk about soccer and its future.

He has never been afraid to speak his mind and, agree with him or not, no one can doubt his commitment to the game. Or AEG’s, for that matter. The company, owned by Denver billionaire Philip F. Anschutz, has invested more than $400 million in soccer over the past decade.

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Leiweke believes change is needed if the sport is to thrive in the United States. He believes the pace of change must be increased. He believes the fans must be listened to and that old ways of doing business must be discarded.

Most of all, he believes American soccer must join the rest of the world and stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Or the soccer ball.

What follows is just a little of what Leiweke had to say.

On where MLS is at the moment:

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“I think we kind of lost our way a few years ago, and what we’re trying to do now is regain our way. I always thought the mistake we made with MLS was that we tried to emulate the other leagues in this country. This mistake’s been made many times with soccer. People have tried to take soccer and conform it to the way we do sports in the United States.

“I keep on trying to say, ‘You know, after the hundreds of millions of dollars people have lost, when are we going to wake up and figure out that we need to convert the American way of doing business to the way soccer is organized around the world?’

“If you go to [NBA Commissioner] David Stern or you go to [the NHL’s] Gary Bettman or you go to even [the NFL’s] Paul Tagliabue and you say to them, ‘What’s your No. 1 priority or No. 2 priority?’ somewhere in there is going to be international expansion. We have international expansion.... What we have is what they all would die to have. And yet we don’t use it. And that’s a mistake.

“I think what we finally are beginning to do in our league is we’re beginning to acknowledge that we have to become part of the rest of the world scene in soccer, whether it’s on the pitch, whether it’s from a business standpoint, whether it’s from a competitive standpoint.”

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On improving the on-field product:

“I think we need to invest more in our product.... The reality is we have a pretty sophisticated marketplace, especially markets such as L.A. and New York. I would venture to say, and I truly believe this, we have an opportunity [with the Galaxy] in L.A. to be the most popular team in the next 10 years, but we’ve got to act like it. ... You’ve got to build a team that people want to watch.

“That’s the challenge. How do you get there? We need big, bold moves. ... That’s what we did with the Home Depot Center. But it doesn’t end there. Facilities are great, but if you’re putting on a bad product, at the end of the day, the facilities aren’t going to matter.”

On the need to bring in more foreign talent:

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“We need to develop superstars from within, but we also need to acknowledge that we have to have that international flavor. When you go watch soccer in England or France or Italy or Spain, they have a mix of players. I think there’s nothing wrong for us to have a high priority toward the American player, but in order to attract attention ... we’ve got to have a player who is a star player, or two or three.

“We are very committed over the next couple of years at trying to the best of our ability to put pressure on the league to upgrade the level of play, and we don’t think that comes just from within American soccer, as good as it’s starting to get. We need players from around the world.”

On foreign teams playing in the U.S. during the MLS season:

“That’s part of the problem [with soccer] in the United States, it’s dysfunctional. I told this to ManU. If the Dallas Cowboys would have gone to play a preseason game in Washington, there would have been hell to pay with the Redskins. ManU comes in and plays opposite our All-Star game and no one cares.

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“The greatest thing about soccer is we’re a true international sport. The worst thing for us sometimes is that everyone feels like this is the gas station. They come here to fill ‘er up. They’ve got to stop it. It’s not fair to this sport. It’s not fair to Phil Anschutz and Lamar Hunt and Dave Checketts. They’ve put a lot of money into this league now.

“If Real Madrid or ManU want to come over here and play, they ought to play us. I have told the ManU guys they can be pirates or pioneers. If they come over and just play games, take the money and run, they’re not doing anything to grow the sport in this country.

“Come over here and play MLS. Show how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. By doing that, they add to the development of our sport, our league, and their brand has a lasting impact.”

On whether MLS should move to keep Landon Donovan:

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“Landon Donovan is the best player in MLS. Landon Donovan is the best player in the United States Soccer Federation’s entire system. And Landon Donovan, God bless him, loves Major League Soccer.

“Landon has an issue he has to resolve in Germany, one way or another. He has to resolve it once and for all. We knew this was coming for a while, and the league is going to have to work this out.”

On why he fired Sigi Schmid as Galaxy coach and replaced him with Steve Sampson:

“I didn’t. That’s a decision Doug [Hamilton, Galaxy president and general manager] made. I supported him 100%. Doug explained to me why. I checked it out for myself, and he was right. I could have overruled it, but I wouldn’t do that.

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“Was that the right decision? The book is still out on Steve. He clearly is under pressure next year. The problem with the Galaxy and coaching the Galaxy is you’re on the shortest chain in MLS. You’ve got very little rope here because we’ve got a lot of money invested, it’s an important market and the fans are demanding. Now you add Chivas USA to the mix and we can’t afford to make too many more mistakes.

“So the pressure’s on Steve. He knows that. I did not know Steve or meet Steve before he came here. I met him after we hired him. I personally like Sigi a lot. I hired Sigi. I consider Sigi to be a friend and a guy that did a good job for us. But coaches lose players in locker rooms sometimes. Unfortunately, the old adage that it’s easier to fire the coach than the team is true.

“The Galaxy didn’t play well all year. Maybe it was the coach. We’ll find out next year. Steve’s going to get a chance. Maybe it’s the chemistry in the locker room. That team needs a personality, though. And they can’t afford to go through another year next year like they did last year because Chivas won’t allow that. Jorge [Vergara, Chivas USA’s owner] wants to put us out of business. He’s serious about it too.

“So we’re going to answer the charge. That’s good for L.A. No matter what people say about Clippers and Lakers, USC-UCLA, Ducks and Kings, those [Galaxy-Chivas USA] games are going to be much more passionate than anything this marketplace has ever seen.”

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On how AEG is perceived by other MLS investors:

“Our other partners may not always like our opinions. Our other partners sometimes feel like we are too dominant, but I don’t think any of them will question our passion. People always think it’s Phil [Anschutz]. What they miss is it’s the entire organization. We are all very focused on making soccer work. We have to now. We have so much money invested in the sport that we can’t turn back. So when people say to us, ‘How much longer will you continue?’ We’ll continue forever.”

On where MLS will be in 10 years:

“I’ve been very vocal and I will repeat it again. In 10 years this is going to be one of the top three or four sports in this country. I continue to remind Gary Bettman -- he gets mad at me when I remind him of this -- soccer is about to surpass hockey.

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“We have a huge opportunity here in the next three or four years. We’ve got a World Cup coming up in 2006. We’ve got a men’s team that is ranked in the top 10 on a pretty consistent basis. We’ve got a kid in Landon Donovan who is one of the best players in the world, and we’ve got a lot more coming all of a sudden.... We’re only going to get better on the world stage now. We’re only going to become an even better, higher-ranked power within the world. ... That should bode well for MLS.”


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