MLS: Leiweke confirms plans to leave Toronto
1. Home Depot Center construction (2003). AEG's main businesses are the entertainment business (AEG Live) and sports facility business (AEG Facilities). As facilities go, Home Depot Center is modest in comparison to other AEG venues like Staples Center up the road in Los Angeles and other facilities like the O2 London, but HDC continued the MLS construction boom begun in 1999 when the Hunt Sport Group opened Columbus Crew Stadium.
Home Depot Center (renamed StubHub Center following the conclusion of the 10-year naming rights agreement) gave soccer a home in the Los Angeles market and is also home for U.S. Soccer, which operates its National Training Center out of Carson. The stadium remains the biggest of the MLS soccer-specific stadiums with a capacity of 27,000.
(AEG later built the Fire's Toyota Park outside Chicago and was a partner in the construction of Red Bull Arena, the home of the New York Red Bulls, before AEG sold the Fire and Red Bulls.)
2. Landon Donovan transfer (2005). The move may not have saved the league as some players have recently suggested following Landon Donovan's announcement that he plans to retire at the end of the season, but Donovan's transfer from Bayer Leverkusen to MLS -- and move to the Galaxy -- was a key turning point in the league.
As early as November 2004, Leiweke suggested that Donovan's place was in MLS, not in Germany, and the league needed to work it out. Donovan, who played with San Jose for his first four seasons, returned to MLS after a short, unhappy stint with Leverkusen -- described at the time by kicker magazine as "an athletic Waterloo" -- and ended up with the Galaxy.
Donovan has won three MLS titles with the Galaxy and will retire as MLS's all-time leading scorer.
3. Designated Player rule (2006). It wasn't that long ago MLS was a low-budget operation with few foreigners, but that all changed because of Leiweke. Perhaps his biggest long-term contribution to MLS is the Designated Player rule he got MLS owners to agree to in 2006.
The rule became known as the Beckham Rule as it allowed clubs to sign players to salaries beyond the limitations of their salary caps. At first, clubs were only allowed one Designated Player. They currently are allowed three Designated Players and there is talk that number will increase.
4. David Beckham signing (2007). "David Beckham will have a greater impact on soccer in America than any other athlete has ever had on a sport globally," Leiweke said in a statement upon Beckham's signing in 2007. Yes, it was p.r. hyperbole, but no player brought more credibility to MLS than Beckham did in his six seasons in the league. His signing coincided with the MLS expansion boom as new owners flooded into the league.
Beckham's signing was classic Leiweke. He doesn't remember the year he began talking with Beckham adviser David Bryne but it was probably 2002. A memo to Anschutz later outlined the deal, and Leiweke courted Beckham with occasional dinners in London and Madrid over the next several years.
Whether Beckham earned the $250 million announced in the initial five-year deal is irrelevant. What matters is that Leiweke wanted everyone to take notice, and they did.
5. Toronto FC turnaround (2014). Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe are no David Beckham, but Leiweke pursued them with equal passion, pulling out all the stops to sign them for the 2014. Leiweke joked that Tim Bezbatchenko, the club's new young general manager, probably thought he was certifiable after outlining his plans to turn around the moribund MLS club.
Leiweke first looked at Italians Fabio Quagliarella and Alberto Gilardino -- Toronto has a big Italian community -- before turning his attention to first Defoe and later Bradley. Leiweke drafted the help of Drake and Lebron James to impress Defoe's mother, Sandra.
Bradley fell into TFC's lap when he decided he'd consider a move back to MLS from Roma, but Leiweke had to get all kinds of approvals from that of MLS commissioner Don Garber to Larry Tanenbaum, his boss at MLSE, and George Cope at Bell Canada and Edward Rogers of Rogers Communications, the MLSE majority owners.
Leiweke committed the company he is now leaving to almost $100 million in a long-term deal.