You don’t have to look too hard to see Tim Leiweke’s fingerprints on Toronto FC’s climb from MLS disaster to league dominance. Nor do you need a degree in sports management to understand how it happened.
But it would be helpful to know a little bit about history — specifically Galaxy history — since the plan Leiweke used was the same one he followed to create a dynasty in Southern California a decade ago.
“That’s where it all started,” says general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, the man Leiweke brought in to oversee Toronto FC’s transformation.
On Saturday the past and present versions of Leiweke’s vision will square off at the StubHub Center (SSN, Spectrum Deportes, 7:30 p.m.) when Toronto FC (17-3-8), the league’s best team, meets the Galaxy (7-14-6), who are just two points better than the league’s worst.
Neither team will be at full strength. The Galaxy will be missing Romain Alessandrini, its top scorer, and Jermaine Jones because of yellow cards as well as injured defender Daniel Steres, while Toronto didn’t bring Sebastian Giovinco or Jozy Altidore — its two leading scorers — since it already clinched a playoff berth with more than a month left in the season.
The blueprint Leiweke used to build both franchises is as simple as it is effective: spend big on players, hire the right people to oversee those investments and then put it all in the hands of a coach who can blend all those egos and personalities into a team.
With the Galaxy that meant signing David Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane to a team managed by Bruce Arena. The result was 67 wins and three league titles from 2011-2014.
In Toronto, it meant hiring Bezbatchenko, signing Michael Bradley, Altidore and Giovinco, then putting it all in the hands of former Galaxy defender Greg Vanney and former Chivas USA coach Robin Fraser.
When that was done, Leiweke moved on to found his own sports advisory and investment company following the 2015 season. The foundation he left behindled to Toronto’s first winning season and first MLS Cup appearance in franchise history in 2016, followed by 17 wins already this season, matching the team’s combined total from 2011-13.
“I saw what we were able to do in L.A. And I had great faith we’d be able to do the same thing in Toronto. There was an appetite from Larry and the two telecoms to make this team the best in Major League Soccer,” Leiweke said, referring to Larry Tanenbaum, the CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and media giants Rogers Communications and Bell Canada, the company’s chief investors.
“I knew they would buy into the philosophy. We wanted to set the tone. We wanted to be one of the best clubs in the league. And we wanted people to chase us.”
Turns out TFC’s owners went even bigger than the Galaxy. While L.A. spent more than $9 million on DP salaries in 2012, Leiweke’s last full season with the Galaxy, TFC has nearly doubled that for Bradley, Giovinco and Altidore.
And Toronto has led the league in payroll in each of the past four seasons.
But TFC didn’t just buy its way to the top of the table. The Galaxy’s success depended on complementary players such as Juninho, A.J. DeLaGarza, Marcelo Sarvas and Todd Dunivant, and so TFC has relied on veterans like Steven Beitashour, Justin Morrow and Marky Delgado, journeymen who had never won before coming to Toronto.
“We stumbled at first. I think the best thing that Toronto did is they didn’t quit. Larry and the owners doubled down,” said Leiweke, who left Maple Leaf Sports in 2015 to form the L.A.-based Oak View Group yet remains a confidant to Bezbatchenko and an advisor to Beckman’s fledging MLS franchise in Miami.
“It wasn’t for the weak of heart. You have to be brave,” Leiweke continued. ”And I know a lot of people around the league didn’t believe in what they were doing.”
If Leiweke handled the big-picture stuff, Bezbatchenko was left with the more difficult task of transforming a team that had gone through eight coaches and three general managers in eight seasons.
It was “a team that really had suffered from a lack of stability, “ he said. “There was nothing to build on. We were in a worse position than most expansion teams.
“It was a firmly established losing culture here at Toronto FC. So there had to be a method or approach to shift that culture.”
That much has been accomplished, although Bezbatchenko insists his job is far from done. Although TFC made it to the title game last year, it lost to Seattle in penalty kicks — and that’s where the comparisons to the Galaxy end.
There are five MLS Cups in the Champions Lounge at the StubHub Center while TFC’s MLS trophy case remains empty.
“We really haven’t won anything yet,” Bezbatchenko said.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11