Friday, April 26, 2013, could go down as a seminal day in the history of Toronto FC. Follow RUDI SCHULLER on Twitter
On the surface, the only days that immediately appear bigger for the embattled MLS franchise are the one in which the team's inception was announced as well as its first ever matchday. The latter confirmed that big time soccer had arrived in Toronto, and in the years since the club has been fighting an uphill battle - mostly with itself - to maintain relevance in an increasingly jaded market.
Most of that struggle had to do with rudderless leadership, starting from the top of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment - which couldn't decide whether it was a sports enterprise or a real estate agent - and filtering down to a Toronto FC head office largely bereft of soccer-knowledgeable decision makers.
No one needs to be reminded of the results: six seasons of mostly futile on-field displays, followed by dwindling attendances and - of those who stuck it out - an increasingly frustrated core of support.
And while there have been small steps in the right direction over the past six months, led by the change in ownership and the hiring of longtime D.C. United honcho Kevin Payne, there hasn't been a single day that observers could point to as the day that could change the tide for the entire TFC organization.
Friday could be that day.
It began with the confirmation that Matias Laba had signed with the Reds as a "young Designated Player," ending weeks of speculation about the Argentine.
A 21-year-old former captain of his U-20 national team, Laba represents a massive departure from previous Toronto DPs. Young and full of potential, it's been reported by the Argentine press that Toronto paid upwards of $1.3 million (USD) for Laba's services, a claim seemingly confirmed when Payne told reporters in Toronto that the transfer fee paid for the midfielder was among the largest in MLS history.
As with any incoming players, only time will tell whether Laba will fit in with the style of play, culture change and various oddities that make MLS such a unique league, but the mere fact that TFC was willing to take a serious financial gamble on a young talent - rather than an established pro closer to the end of his career than the beginning - signals the potential start of a new era for the club.
Risky signings with big upside like Laba show more ambition from the team than grabbing a (safe) 30-something from Europe, which seems to be exactly what TFC was going for.
Incoming player aside, the really big news of the day hit a few hours later, when MLSE announced that it had succeeded in its courtship of high-profile exceutive Tim Leiweke, who will step into the company as President and CEO at the end of June.
While talking heads in the Toronto media will focus on Leiweke's part in bringing Lord Stanley's mug to Los Angeles last year (along with his extensive network of contacts all over the sports and entertainment world that could potentially turn MLSE into an even bigger juggernaut), the former head of Anschutz Entertainment Group is first and foremost a soccer man.
The St. Louis native first cut his teeth as a sports executive as the assistant general manager of a Major Indoor Soccer League franchise, and in the years since he has been forging ties all over the North American soccer scene. Most famously, he helped usher in the Designated Player Era - the same era that allowed TFC to sign Laba - into MLS as one of the leading figures of the Los Angeles Galaxy.
While serving as AEG president, Leiweke helped get both the Home Depot Center in LA and Houston's BBVA Compass Stadium built, stabilizing MLS franchises in both of those cities. But of more interest to soccer fans in Toronto, Leiweke was instrumental in helping build the Galaxy into the juggernaut it is today.
Of course, the new MLSE boss will have much more on his plate than the success and failures of TFC - that's why Payne was hired - but just having a successful soccer-friendly man in the top job of the company is a huge boost for a club that has seemed at times like a second class citizen, both within the organization that owns it and the city it represents.
And while one or both of Laba and Leiweke may not end up being the saviour that soccer fans in the Greater Toronto Area have craved, they can still point to the day that the player and executive joined the organization as the day that Toronto FC showed a previously unseen ambition to truly go for it.
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