TORONTO - What do you do when the man who signs your paycheque takes a swipe at you or your co-workers?
If you're a Toronto FC player, you say nice things about Tim Leiweke and then politely disagree.
Leiweke, the outgoing president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, has made headlines since taking over the job in June 2013. Nothing has changed with the news that he will be stepping down by June 2015.
No matter when he leaves, part of Leiweke's legacy will be determined whether Toronto FC makes the MLS playoffs — as he has promised it will.
It has not looked good of late.
Toronto (9-11-7) has fallen to seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings after going winless in five games and winning just three of its last 16 games (3-7-6). Only the top five teams in each conference make the playoffs.
Manager Ryan Nelsen and five assistant coaches were fired Aug. 31. And last week, Leiweke took aim at the players.
"The only two guys in our locker-room that are looking around and going we ain't going down unless we go down fighting are Michael Bradley and (new manager) Greg Vanney," Leiweke told a group of Ryerson MBA students last Thursday. "We have work to do there. We're not done by any means."
Bradley, a big-ticket midfielder brought on board by Leiweke, chose his words carefully when asked about Leiweke's criticism.
"Tim is very clever in the way that he goes about things. The words that he chooses, the moments when he chooses to say something," Bradley said after practice Tuesday. "And so he has an incredible presence and an incredible aura when he speaks and when he walks into a room.
"We all know there's no bigger supporter of this team than him. And so as president and CEO of this club, he certainly has the right to say anything and everything he wants."
But Bradley, while acknowledging "we deserve to be where we are (in the standings) because that's what the table says," clearly has a different view of his teammates.
The U.S. international sees the proper commitment and desire needed in his fellow players.
"On the inside of that locker-room, there's a group of guys who are ready to give everything they have over the course of these last seven games ... We're not in a hole and the situation is not nearly as doom and gloom as so many people try to make it out to be.
"I think you saw on Saturday night (in a 1-1 tie with Chicago) that whatever happens over these last seven games, we're going down swinging."
So was Leiweke just trying to take the pressure of the players by making himself the focus of the story?
"You'd have to ask him that," said Bradley.
Captain Steven Caldwell did not make Leiweke's list of players showing the right attitude. The veteran Scottish defender has been injured of late although he was back in full training Tuesday.
He too was diplomatic when asked about Leiweke's comments.
"First and foremost he's the head of the organization, he's very much entitled to his opinion and his thoughts," said Caldwell. "And my job's just to play football.
"I think that you guys have probably been at every game I've played for TFC and been at most of the training sessions. I think you just know that I give 100 per cent every time I pull on a red shirt or any shirt I've every pulled on in my career. Be sure that I'm fighting, I'll be fighting until the last seconds of the season. And I do feel that everything's to play for. I'm very confident of our chances of making these playoffs."
Vanney said he had not seen Leiweke's comments.
"What I do know is that when we train every day, everybody is competing and the team that I saw in the last 30 minutes (Saturday) was going down swinging and that's what we're asking for the group the rest of the way. I hope we get that same competitive spirit now at the beginning of the next match and if we do, then I think a lot of different comments will come out from a lot of people.
"I think this group has a lot to prove and I think they will answer the bell."
On the plus side, Vanney also said star striker Jermain Defoe is on schedule to be back later this week and has targeted a game to make his return. Defoe has been back in England nursing a groin injury amidst reports that he wants to leave Toronto and return to English soccer.
Vanney reiterated that the 31-year-old Defoe is expected back at the club on Saturday. But he did not specify which game might see Defoe's comeback.
Caldwell and midfielder Jonathan Osorio both trained Tuesday after injury layoffs and Vanney said he hoped both would be available for Sunday's game against visiting Chivas USA (6-16-6). Midfielder Collen Warner (mild hamstring) did not practise.
Chivas has lost its last five games and has not won in 10 games (0-9-1) since July 12.
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