Shrewd management and soccer ‘smarts’ led to TFC turnaround

Toronto FC's Justin Morrow (right). (Jon Blacker/CP)

TORONTO – In 2012, Toronto FC was so bad that Danny Koevermans famously sounded off by stating TFC was “setting a record as the worst team in the world.”

It was difficult to argue otherwise, to dismiss the Dutch striker’s outburst as hyperbole. The Reds lost their first nine games of that regular season, and were essentially out of playoff contention by the end of May. Not September, or even August – May. Manager Aron Winter was fired, but it didn’t help matters. Toronto won just five times that season, and finished dead last in MLS with a meagre 23 points.

Fast forward five years to this past Saturday when TFC clinched first place in the overall standings with a 4-2 home win over the New York Red Bulls. The victory allowed Toronto to secure home-field advantage all the way through the playoffs, and to move closer to breaking the record for most points in an MLS season. With 65 points in the bag and two games to go, Toronto can eclipse the mark of 68 points set by the 1998 LA Galaxy.

From league laughingstock to MLS model franchise within a span of five years. Think about that for a second. How did this incredible metamorphosis happen? How did Toronto FC make the transformation from pitiful losers to the best team in the league?

The easy answer is money. TFC has the highest payroll in the league, spending big on Designated Players the calibre of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. These three stars have been at the forefront of TFC’s renaissance, and collectively they are a big part of why the Reds will enter this post-season as the favourite to hoist the MLS Cup trophy on Dec. 9.

So, the money has helped. But it’s not the only reason. It’s not even the main reason. Far more important than the investment that MLSE has made in DPs is the way the organization has been run over the past three years. Shrewd management and soccer “smarts” are the real currency that has mattered most to TFC.

On that score, credit must be given to general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and coach Greg Vanney for the way they have rebuilt the roster from top to bottom, and, along with club president Bill Manning, for radically changing the culture of this once floundering franchise.

Bezbatchenko’s arrival in Toronto near the end of the 2013 campaign was a curious one, to say the least. He had no previous GM experience – he was a 30-something lawyer who had worked in the league’s head office. TFC was about to suffer its seventh consecutive losing season, and had never made the playoffs since coming into the league in 2007. It seemed an odd decision to hire someone who had no proven track record of turning teams around.

Bezbatchenko’s appointment as GM turned out to be one of the most important decisions ever made by the club. He’s been the chief architect behind TFC’s rebuild, playing pivotal roles in bringing Giovinco, Bradley, and Altidore to Toronto. He’s made mistakes, but his batting average in terms of player recruitment is pretty good.

Beyond the three DPs, Bezbatchenko brought in Justin Morrow, Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, all of them trusted MLS veterans, and exactly the types of starters that every team in this league needs to succeed. Foreign-based and experienced players such as Victor Vazquez, Chris Mavinga, Benoit Cheyrou and Nicolas Hasler didn’t cost nearly as much, but they have turned out to be hugely important pieces.

Draft picks Alex Bono and Nick Hagglund have proven to be true gems, as has Marky Delgado, who the Reds picked up for nothing – for nothing! – after 13 other teams took a pass on him in the 2014 Chivas USA dispersal draft. The end result is an incredibly balanced TFC side that is one of the deepest teams in league history. DPs matter, but the supporting cast matters just at much, and that is something that Bezbatchenko has fundamentally understood better than most of his GM colleagues.

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Working in tandem with Bezbatchenko, Vanney has guided TFC through its most successful era, which includes a first-ever playoff berth, last season’s memorable run to the MLS Cup final, back-to-back Canadian Championships, a Supporters’ Shield title, and a return to next season’s CONCACAF Champions League.

Vanney’s tactical imprint is all over this team, as his decision to go with a 3-5-2 formation in the second half of the 2016 campaign proved to be integral to the club’s incredible run, with just six regular season losses since last October.

The 3-5-2 setup has brought out the absolute best in his players, and has been a perfect fit for the style of play, with an emphasis on quick ball movement that Vanney preaches. Justin Morrow has emerged as one of the best wingbacks in the league since the formation change. Bradley has dictated games from playing in a deeper midfield role, while Victor Vazquez has served as the vital link between defence and attack, with Altidore and Giovinco benefiting from the Spaniard’s sublime service.

Just as important, Vanney has done an admirable job of getting his players to buy in, while creating healthy competition for playing time. Not everybody can play, and there are a handful of players who could start on several other MLS teams. But Vanney has managed to keep everybody happy, even those who glued to the bench. There are no malcontents in TFC’s locker-room, and that’s a testament to Vanney’s managing style, and his ability to make everybody feel important and a part of the team.

The easiest thing in the world for Manning to do would have been to fire Vanney after that 3-0 playoff loss to Montreal in 2015. Manning was named club president just a few weeks earlier, and he had no allegiance to Vanney. What’s more, Jason Kreis was available – Kreis was Manning’s coach when they won an MLS Cup together at Real Salt Lake in 2009.

But Manning saw something in Vanney, and he crucially decided to break the organization’s brutal cycle of hiring and then firing managers. Manning kept the faith with Vanney, and the results speak for themselves. Vanney is Toronto’s longest tenured coach, he holds a number of team records, and he became the first TFC manager to earn a second contract when he signed a new deal in July.

“He needed time. He needed someone to believe in him. As we got midway through the 2016 season, I really started believing in him as a head coach. I told him that. I said, ‘You’re the guy who’s going to lead us in the future.’ Things really worked out for us,” Manning said.

Indeed, they have.

TFC Pitchside will provide Toronto FC supporters with an inside look into their favourite obsession Monday nights at 11 pm ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. Call it an all-access pass for all things MLS brought to you by co-hosts Dan Riccio, Thomas Michalakos and producer Amil Delic. You'll hear from the biggest names around the club, and the MLS. You'll also get reviews and previews of every TFC game with reports from Pitchside at training and on game days at BMO Field. The Six is about to get done!