Go abroad, young man
Galaxy's Leiweke wants Americans to play overseas
Posted: Tuesday July 17, 2007 10:39PM; Updated: Wednesday July 18, 2007 12:48PM
Tim Leiweke, the man who landed David Beckham for the Los Angeles Galaxy, may well be the most powerful figure in Major League Soccer. And yet the more time I spend around Leiweke, the more I realize he has some truly radical ideas about how to grow the league and the sport of soccer in the United States.
Like this one: The best young U.S. players should be playing overseas -- and not in MLS, the very league Leiweke is trying to make more relevant to mainstream sports fans.
Come again? He's not joking. Listen:
"Our best players are only going to get better on a World Cup level if they go to the [English] Premier League and [Spain's] La Liga and play every game with the best players in the world," says Leiweke, the president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, which owns the Galaxy, Houston Dynamo and Chicago Fire. "They're not going to be able to take that next step here [in MLS]. This can't be a matter of pride or ego that our best players have to stay here. Our best players need to get better, because the best thing that can happen to our league is if the Americans one day win the World Cup. It'll be unbelievable."
There's more to Leiweke's long-term MLS growth strategy, however, as evidenced by his signing of Beckham and his continued behind-the-scenes encouragement of other MLS owners to use the so-called Beckham Rule to purchase big-name stars. In Leiweke's mind, the migration across the Atlantic shouldn't be a one-way process.
"We've got to send our best players over there to get better, and we've got to find some of the great European and world stars to come here and take our league to the next level and teach us," Leiweke told me. "I think David Beckham is going to do that, but we need a lot more than just David Beckham."
But Leiweke isn't done yet. He argues that eventually those world-class Americans would come back to MLS after going through the trial-by-fire maturation process in Europe (and presumably becoming, in one or two cases, the first U.S. men's soccer superstars). And eventually -- five years, 10 years, maybe 15 years from now -- MLS would be on a high enough level for the best young Americans not to have to go abroad to improve.
"We've got to reach into the development system and emulate the way the rest of the world develops their young players," Leiweke argues. "We've got to ultimately be brave enough to send our good players over there to make them better, and then eventually bring them back here, and hopefully our league gets better."
Keep in mind, Leiweke's views are highly controversial in MLS circles, not least among his fellow owners. In other words, don't expect the more conservative Kraft family (which owns the New England Revolution) or the Hunt family (which owns FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew) to agree with him.
Nor, for that matter, does MLS commissioner Don Garber. "I don't believe in that," Garber told me during a recent interview when I brought up Leiweke's strategy. "I have great respect for Tim. He's been an incredible chairman for our board, and without Tim's passion for the sport Phil Anschutz [the AEG founder] probably wouldn't be involved to the point he's at and the Home Depot Center wouldn't be built."