By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Jan 4, 2019) US Soccer Players – The nature of an “organization” means that success or failure is a function of a cooperative effort. It takes a small army to do anything moderately complicated, like, say, win a championship, meaning that no one person should get all of the credit when a team does just that.
If we attempted to fairly divide the credit for the rise of Toronto FC into one of the elite clubs in Major League Soccer, a club with a 2017 season that will stand out in the record books for as long as the competition exists, most of it would go to one man: Tim Bezbatchenko.
Toronto’s slow, excruciating march from abjectly poor expansion team to 2017 MLS Cup winner took a lurch forward when Tim Leiweke joined the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, TFC’s ownership group, as president and CEO in 2013. Leiweke made moves to rapidly improve the fortunes of the team by flexing MLSE’s financial muscle with signings like Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.
It was the hiring of Bezbatchenko, however, a former Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition with the league office in New York, that proved to be the transformative moment for Toronto. From his time at MLS headquarters, Bezbatchenko brought with him an in-depth understanding of the league’s arcane roster budget rules and allocation mechanisms. Rather “smash all the buttons” the way they had been before, Toronto hired an expert equipped to take a surgical approach to building a winner.
Bezbatchenko’s first action as GM wasn’t of the subtle variety, however. After shadowing Leiweke to recruit Michael Bradley from Roma, Bezbatchenko did the heavy lifting in securing the signature of Juventus attacker Sebastian Giovinco. Five years later, it’s easy to lose sight of just how significant Giovinco’s arrival was both for TFC and for the league as a whole.
The line from Giovinco joining MLS at the age of 27 to Atlanta collecting young stars like Josef Martinez and Miguel Almiron is a straight one. Again, credit it tough to parcel out with some many variables involved, but Bezbatchenko’s coup in signing Giovinco is an inflection point in the evolution of the modern MLS.
Bezbatchenko himself was extremely young by general manager standards. He was just 32 when he joined TFC. He was still young when the team he built made back-to-back MLS Cup Final appearances and collected three trophies in the historic 2017 season. At 37, Bezbatchenko was the youngest person holding a general manager or equivalent in MLS in 2018. In 2019, he’ll be the youngest team president in the league.
He won’t be the president in Toronto, though. Bill Manning retains that position after joining the club as Leiweke’s replacement in 2015. Bezbatchenko is moving on, reportedly signing on as the new president of a rebooted Columbus Crew organization.
The attraction for Bezbatchenko is obvious, even if it seems strange that he’s leaving an excellent situation in Toronto. While the Reds have the resources and ambition to bounce back following a ninth-place finish in 2018, joining the Crew means a promotion and the chance to build under the new investors in Ohio.
Bezbatchenko is also a Columbus area native, a likely factor in his decision to leave Toronto. The lure of the hometown side, one in desperate need of leadership following the near-relocation, sale, and departure of GM/head coach Gregg Berhalter, proved irresistible. The Crew’s fresh start means Bezbatchenko will have a chance to oversee a rebuild of the roster, working with a new head coach, while also directing the club towards a new stadium and training facility.
There’s no ideal time for a change at the top-level soccer decision-making roles. The MLS offseason is a churn of contract options choices, recruitment, drafts, and salary budget manipulation. What matters more than when a change comes is how quickly a club can fill vacancies and stay on top of the process of building for a new season. TFC faced a potentially problematic gap when Bezbatchenko disclosed his intention to leave for Columbus in the final week of 2018.
Luckily for the club, an obvious candidate was available. To Toronto’s credit, Manning wasted no time in contacting former New York Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis, a man with a strong resume very similar to that of Bezbatchenko’s. Despite losing a power struggle with Jesse Marsch at the start of 2017 and exiting Harrison, Curtis retained an aura of success from his work building a Red Bulls team that won two Supporters’ Shields during his time in charge.
No more than a week passed between Bezbatchenko’s resignation and Curtis unveiling as the new general manager. That’s lightning quick for the obvious reasons. The MLS combine and SuperDraft are just a week away. The quest to find new signing within the MLS roster rules is at its peak.
Like Bezbatchenko, Curtis spent time in the Senior Director of Player Relations and Competition role at MLS, preparing him for the ins-and-outs of roster and budget management. Famously, Curtis developed a 300-page plan for the Red Bulls that prompted difficult decisions like firing popular head coach Mike Petke following a playoff season in 2014 but set the club up for future success.
Toronto is getting one of the best prepared general managers available. Any concern over Curtis’s layoff since leaving the Red Bulls is mitigated by his work as a consultant over that period. Curtis also has the approval of TFC head coach Greg Vanney. The coach met with Curtis at his offseason Arizona home ahead of his hiring.
There are no guarantees, but it’s hard to imagine Toronto handling the sudden departure of the key architect of their title-winning side any better. Strong leadership with clear vision and decisive action puts the club in the best possible position despite losing Bezbatchenko. TFC fans can rest easy.
Bezbatchenko deserves the lion’s share of credit for turning TFC into an MLS juggernaut. His work there created a giant and helped usher in the next evolution of MLS player acquisition. That success has earned him a shot at an even tougher job. One that includes not just the on-field product, but the whole of an organization’s operation.
Crew fans, too, can rest easy. Not only is their club staying in Columbus, but they also have new investment, including a new stadium. Now they have an accomplished, young, energetic, and local executive on his way.
If Columbus evolves into a championship-caliber side under Bezbatchenko’s leadership, it will be fair to parcel out a lot of the credit again—”organization” or not—to one person. Curtis isn’t in the same situation in Toronto, but the stakes are the same. Leadership in MLS is about winning titles.
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- Are the Portland Timbers MLS Cup underdogs?
Photo by Andy Mead – ISIPhotos.com