LOS ANGELES -- The man who landed David Beckham for the Los Angeles Galaxy told SI.com that he wants Beckham's Galaxy replacement to be Kaká, Real Madrid's 30-year-old Brazilian midfielder who won the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year award.
"We're well aware of Kaká's interest in MLS, and we in turn have made it very clear to him that he's aware of our interest in him," said Tim Leiweke, the president of AEG, which owns the Galaxy. "We have a great relationship with Real Madrid, and just as we worked through a player with them six years ago [Beckham], I'm absolutely convinced we could find the right deal this time, too."
Leiweke's words will reverberate everywhere from the U.S. to Madrid to Rio de Janeiro for a simple reason: When this power broker speaks, you have to listen. In January 2007, Leiweke stunned the sports world by signing Beckham to a five-year contract when the English superstar was still just 31, several years before anyone thought Beckham would come to the United States.
If L.A. could land Kaká (pronounced ka-KAW) at the same age -- he turns 31 next April -- Leiweke and the Galaxy think he has enough in the tank to be a star in MLS for a five-year period as well. Granted, Kaká has dealt with injury issues since moving to Real Madrid on an $84 million transfer in 2009, and he has played in just eight games for José Mourinho's team in all competitions this season. But Kaká also started for Brazil in its last three friendlies, a sign that he may be on his way back to being a full-time contributor on the national team ahead of World Cup 2014 in Brazil.
Leiweke's declared intention to sign Kaká is bad news for Frank Lampard, the longtime Chelsea star who sources say has been interested in joining the Galaxy to fill Beckham's Designated Player slot. Lampard would be available as a free agent next summer when he finishes his Chelsea contract, but he would also be 35 years old and not a long-term solution. Nor would Lampard be as appealing as Kaká to the Latino demographic that Leiweke says is crucial for the Galaxy to win over.
Beckham's departure "leaves us a [Designated Player] slot, and we're going to be very patient on that slot," Leiweke said. "I'm very proud of the fact we have a lot of people that are interested in the Galaxy. By the way, I'm a huge Frank Lampard fan, and I personally have great respect for him. I've gotten to spend some time with him, and he's an unbelievably good guy. Is he the right fit for our team now for what we need?"
Later on in our interview, which took place at AEG's $2.5 billion L.A. Live complex, Leiweke essentially answered his own question by saying that he and Galaxy coach and general manager Bruce Arena agree that Kaká would be a better fit with the Galaxy. One big reason: The Galaxy's new 10-year, $55 million local television deal with Time Warner Cable's regional sports channels, one in English and one in Spanish.
"Bruce and I happen to be on the same page about where we need to go next," Leiweke said. "This next person has to be able to not only fit what Bruce needs on the pitch, but more importantly we're an ever-changing demo in this marketplace, and we have to pay attention to that. It's critical that we do the one thing we have never been able to do yet with the Galaxy, although we've tried. There is a Hispanic Latino population base we have to go conquer, and we haven't."
"I do think we have more of a Hispanic audience than people give us credit for, because they like the style we play and that we win. But that said, we have tried at various times -- [Carlos] Ruiz, [Luis] Hernández, a few different players -- and I don't think we've ever found the right guy who ultimately captivates that marketplace."
"That marketplace is critical because of our Time Warner deal," Leiweke continued. "We now have a Time Warner Latino channel that we are very focused on. It was a major reason that we made the deal with them. And as much as we understand the Lakers are the mothership, on the Hispanic channel the Galaxy has a chance of being an equal partner to the Lakers as to the demand, and we get that. But we'd better build a team that ultimately acknowledges the demos and how they're changing. We're going to be very careful with that [Designated Player] slot."
AEG and the Galaxy will have to be careful in their push for Kaká for a few reasons:
• Kaká's Real Madrid contract. Two more seasons remain on Kaká's deal, according to a source close to Real Madrid. While I'm told the Spanish giant would sell him for less money to an MLS team than to a potential Champions League rival like AC Milan, it's unlikely the club would let him go for free. The Galaxy have been willing to pay relatively small transfer fees as it did for Robbie Keane, but the transfer fee could be a sticking point.
• Other suitors outside the U.S. are interested in Kaká. The player's best days took place at Milan, which could bring him back, and newly flush Brazilian clubs like Flamengo may also be interested in bringing Kaká back to the country where he started his career.
• The New York Red Bulls may want Kaká, too. Kaká publicly expressed his interest in playing for New York before Brazil's recent friendly against Colombia in New Jersey. He owns an apartment in Manhattan, and his brother Digão plays for the Red Bulls. However, New York already has all three of its DP slots filled (with Thierry Henry, Tim Cahill and Rafa Márquez), so one of them (Márquez?) would have to depart for Kaká to be able to join the team.
Even then, MLS' rules prevent teams like New York and Los Angeles from competing against each other to sign star players from abroad by getting into bidding wars. According to MLS rules, dibs go to the team that files a "discovery claim" first on a player. (See the section on Discovery Signings here.) An MLS source said no team has filed a discovery claim on Kaká yet, adding that if N.Y. and L.A. were to file a claim on Kaká on the same day (at the start of the next discovery window) the league would likely have to get involved to settle things.
One thing is clear, though: Leiweke's stated interest in Kaká is something New York has yet to match publicly, and L.A. actually has a DP slot free with Beckham's departure. To hear Leiweke talk, his main concern is Real Madrid and whether or not the club will try to play hardball on a transfer fee. Patience isn't exactly Leiweke's strong suit, but he understands that may be required here. "As you know, sometimes the summer window is more important than the winter window [in MLS]," he said. "We do know where we're going, and that may mean we've got to be patient.
"It's up to Real Madrid to tell us when they want to engage. But [Kaká] is a player within their system, and because I am a fan and a partner of Real Madrid, we will absolutely follow their lead on whether or not they want to have this conversation and when they want to have it. In the meantime, I'm not going to go out and do anything that ultimately prevents us from having that conversation."
These days are a busy -- and remarkably successful -- time for owner Phil Anschutz and AEG, whose sprawling list of properties includes more than 100 facilities around the world, the AEG Live music division, the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the MLS Cup champion Galaxy, part of the L.A. Lakers and the L.A. Live complex here downtown. (Not for nothing did a recent New Yorker magazine article call Anschutz "the man who owns L.A.")
Leiweke is Anschutz's point man, and it can be safely argued that they saved Major League Soccer 10 years ago when AEG ended up owning six of the league's 10 teams after Miami and Tampa Bay were contracted from the league. AEG has successfully sold off all of those MLS teams except Los Angeles and 50 percent of Houston, which (wouldn't you know it) have both reached Saturday's MLS Cup final (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, TeleFutura). When the MLS champion is crowned on Saturday, it will receive the Anschutz trophy.
What's more, amid all of this AEG is up for sale, and bids are expected to start coming in next week for an empire that could go for as much as $7 billion to $10 billion. How busy is Leiweke? In a 30-minute conversation here, we touched on all these topics:
• AEG's pursuit of an NFL team and stadium in L.A. How close is AEG to getting an NFL stadium built and an NFL team for it? "The good news is if you sat down at the beginning of a process and say what are the necessary steps we'll have to go through to bring football back to L.A., there are probably 15 steps we had to go through," Leiweke said. "Of those 15 or so steps, we're down to 13 of them are gone and we have two things left. We have to make a deal with the league and we have to get a team."
"The very things that ran the Rams, Raiders and a long time ago the Chargers out of this city are political and legal [issues], and those are gone. Nothing's going to happen with the last step until we can go to the league and get them comfortable with our new owners. They share our vision and are willing to make the financial commitment. A prerequisite of everything we're doing with ownership and anyone that Mr. Anschutz will consider selling to is subject to them making sure they are financially and from a vision standpoint locked in on this concept."
"I don't think we'll be sitting here a year from now talking anything about football with the exception of what team."
When I told him he was talking as though the stadium, Farmers Field, was a done deal, Leiweke said: "We have been spending a fair amount of time on the NFL lately. We've engaged in a different level of conversation with the owners in the league, and I think there's a difference between arrogance and confidence. We will never be arrogant on football, not after 20 years of all of us getting our rear ends kicked here, but we're confident. I apologize if my air is one of arrogance. It is one of confidence. I'm much more confident now. People will say it's pretty good to be confident when you don't have an owner, but we have a pretty good idea where we're headed on that too."
• How did the AEG-owned Kings go from NHL laughingstocks to Stanley Cup champions? "Patience," Leiweke said. "Hockey in the NHL is not a quick fix, unlike some other sports where you can go out and get a free agent or two and change your fortunes immediately. I hate to say it this way, but you've got to suck to be good. Draft picks are critical within the NHL."
• Which accomplishments is AEG most proud of? "The stuff we haven't done yet," Leiweke said. "You know me. I'm always focused on what's next. The Stanley Cup was a brilliant moment, and I'm probably more passionate than anyone in the organization of the bookends here, which is the MLS Cup from last year and the Cup from this year, whoever wins it [L.A. or Houston]. ... Having the Stanley Cup in the middle and add to that getting Farmers Field approved finally and resolving the lawsuits and just to make our lives interesting, the sale of AEG. It's been a remarkable year, an intense year, an emotional rollercoaster."
"But we're still thinking about what's next. How do we get football? Everyone's talking about David [Beckham] leaving, but I'm already thinking about what's next. Everyone can have an opinion about what David did or did not do. To me, what David did is show us our potential, so it's not sitting here trying to debate the past but rather to learn from what he showed us we can do. I don't think David's the best move we ever made. He'll give us the opportunity to go do the best move we ever made. I'm thinking about that, about the sale of this company and the implications for all of us here. I'm fairly certain the next group of owners comes in and looks at the management team and says justify the payment. So we'll be very driven to prove value here."
Leiweke recently signed a long-term deal with AEG, and he is expected to remain in charge of the management team when the new owner takes over.
• Will the Galaxy be spun off as an individual unit or kept under the AEG umbrella? "We have to understand we don't own this company," Leiweke said. "Mr. Anschutz does today and someone will tomorrow. I'm very much at peace with the fact the new owner will come in and dictate to us what they want to do. We're aware some will love our real estate but not our teams. There may be others who love our teams but not our real estate. Some may see the world exactly the same way we do. We're prepared for any of that. If it means people ultimately ask us to spin off our music division or sports teams or some of our properties, these are all not only possibilities but in some cases probabilities. We'll do what they ask us to do to the best of our ability."
"We've had probably more interest in the Galaxy in people calling me in the last 30 days to see if we're going to sell them than in any other property we have. Which is surprising. You'd think football or the Lakers, maybe even the Kings with the Stanley Cup. I'll attribute some of that to the entry level is pretty good. It's the most expensive franchise in the league" -- he valued L.A. and Seattle at around $150 million each -- "and you look at our new TV and jersey deals. We went through a three-week process where we signed $100 million worth of deals for the Galaxy. The fact we have that many people interested, it's probably of all our sports teams the one that has the greatest upside in valuation as well."
• How does he feel about the Galaxy's DPs: Beckham, Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane? "I think David made the right decision [to leave], and I'm proud of him," Leiweke said. "What he does next is his decision and not ours. It does give us a [DP] slot. We'll have to see what Landon wants to do. I know Landon probably as well as anybody. I think this is less about quitting and more about he needs a time out. He needs some time to himself, and we'll work that out. I don't think Landon's gonna leave yet, because the sun shines brightest on him next, and he knows that. He's 31. I'll let him have that moment to decide, but I think it's more about taking a moment and getting a breath than calling it a career. I think he's in the middle of his best days. He's a young man."
"Robbie is maybe one of the better deals we've ever done. All due respect to everyone else, Robbie has been the phenomenal player in the playoffs for us. He's been awesome."
• The Houston Dynamo matters to AEG, too. "The two best teams in the league the last four years are here," Leiweke said. "What Dom [Kinnear, the Dynamo coach] has done in Houston, we're really proud of that club. Getting that stadium done to me was one of our top five accomplishments as a company this year. ... I will be equally as proud of them winning the trophy as the Galaxy on Saturday. I'm OK either way, because I think they deserve it. I am glad the Rockets had whatever brain freeze they had [in failing to buy the Dynamo], because we will hold onto that team long-term now. We love that team."