Pirate or Pioneer?: Leiweke brothers query European club intentions in North American soccer

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Are European club matches in North America bad for domestic soccer?

It’s not the first time the question has been asked and certainly won’t be the last. But on Wednesday brothers Tod and Tim Leiweke made some serious noise when they told the ‘Leaders in Sport Summit’ that they were against reported plans for European clubs to play matches in North America.

Reports of that interest came from the Daily Mail, which suggested UEFA was considering staging mini-tournaments outside Europe, while other reports said a number of Premier League have discussed playing regular season games abroad.

For Tim, current president of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment which owns Toronto FC, and Tod, current CEO of Tampa Bay Sports & Entertainment who once held the same title for the Seattle Sounders, this kind of chatter begs the question to European football’s elite clubs: ‘Will you be a pirate or will you be a pioneer?’

“Are you going to use North America just as an opportunity to make some additional dollars or are you going to commit to taking the sport to the next level and help to grow Major League Soccer?” Tod asked the room at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.

The challenge for MLS and American soccer, according to Tim Leiweke, is to figure out the intentions of Premier League clubs that play pre-season friendlies in the US. “Are those competitors our partners or do they see that North American landscape and want to take money out of that landscape? Therein lies the challenge for Major League Soccer.”

While 10 years ago it was fine for European clubs to summer in the US and make money before jetting home, now, according to the Leiweke’s, it isn’t. As a league and as a fan-base MLS has grown immensely over the last decade the time has come for it to be treated that way.

Manchester City is one pioneer that has done so. Citing their work in New York City and the signings of David Villa and Frank Lampard as evidence, Tod Leiweke set forth the counter-position: “At the same time, you look at the news about UEFA thinking about moving a meaningful series of games over to North America. Is that good or bad for Major League Soccer? Is that a pioneer vision or is that a pirate move? Therein lies the debate.”

And what a fascinating debate it is.

There’s no doubt that European clubs venture to the US to spread their brand and make money but what constitutes fair compensation for MLS sides that agree to host those matches? Are they owed money? Community service? Publicity abroad? Reciprocity? After all, when is the last time a MLS side was handed a full pre-season friendly by a Premier League club?

One thing is for sure, the Leiweke’s are adamant that something is amiss and it’s hard to argue otherwise. MLS has made major strides over the last 10 years and is no longer the little cousin in a rich family who can be leaned on for lunch money. But if the Leiweke’s are going to take the hardline approach, they need to provide solutions. And when they do, expect this topic to gain some serious (and deserved) momentum.