Tim Bezbatchenko hire sparked remarkable TFC turnaround

John Molinaro joins Sportsnet's Starting Lineup to discuss what will be job number one for TFC's new GM. Getting younger, quicker and tinkering with the roster seem to be the things needed to improve the club.

TORONTO — “Tim who?”

That was the overwhelming reaction among Toronto FC’s loyal fanbase and longtime beat reporters who covered the Reds on a regular basis when Tim Bezbatchenko was named general manager on Sept. 20, 2013.

Who could have reasonably known at the time that the bookish Bezbatchenko would become the chief architect of TFC’s mesmerizing metamorphosis from MLS laughingstock to league powerhouse?

And now, with his work with TFC seemingly completed, Bezbatchenko, 37, will soon be gone, set to take over as president of the Columbus Crew, Sportsnet has learned through sources. A native of nearby Westerville, Ohio, Bezbatchenko’s departure from Toronto and pending move to his hometown club was first reported by the Columbus Dispatch newspaper.

“Who is this guy, exactly? And how do you pronounce his name?” were just two of the questions routinely asked when Bezbatchenko took over as GM in 2013, the latest man charged with the Herculean task of turning a perennially floundering club into a winner.

Times were tough for TFC when Bezbatchenko arrived on the scene, the chances of a remarkable remodel into a successful franchise looking pretty remote. The Reds went six consecutive seasons without so much as a single playoff appearance since entering Major League Soccer in 2007. The year before Bezbatchenko’s arrival, in 2012, the team began the campaign with nine consecutive losses (nine!), a record for futility that essentially knocked them out of playoff contention by late May — not even at the halfway point of the regular season — and led former striker Danny Koevermans to infamously remark that TFC was “setting a record as the worst team in the world.”ñ

2013 wasn’t much better. With another playoff-less year a mere formality, things had become ugly at BMO Field. Once a cauldron of positivity, even through some very lean years, the Reds’ home stadium had turned into a very dark place, poisoned by a toxic atmosphere. Silent protests became the norm, and anti-MLSE banners were routinely unfurled in the stands, leaving little doubt that the club’s long-suffering fans were fed up with ownership and how the team was being run.

TFC had a dubious history of hiring coaches with no previous experience — Ryan Nelsen, hired in January 2013, was still playing in the Premier League for Blackburn when he was given the job. His predecessor, Aron Winter, had only coached youth teams in his native Holland.

As for Bezbatchenko, he was a lawyer by trade, and spent three years working in the MLS head office in New York as the league’s senior director of player relations and competition. He had never even been previously employed as an assistant GM in MLS.

Needless to say, then, his appointment was met with great scepticism, and raised a rather obvious question: Why didn’t Toronto pick someone who, you know, had experience as a GM and a track record of success in MLS? Toronto FC was mired in utter chaos at the time. The last thing it needed was another neophyte in charge. It needed a steady hand. Giving the keys to the kingdom to a 30-something league employee was destined to be yet another in a long list of bonehead moves by an organization that was enveloped in a culture of failure. Or so it seemed.


As fate would have it, hiring Bezbatchenko proved to be a turning point for Toronto FC. A midfielder of modest skills during his playing days — he turned out for the University of Richmond and played one pro season in the old USL with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds — Bezbatchenko was inspired to dream big by former MLSE head honcho Tim Leiweke, and began to set the wheels in motion of an amazing transformation that would see TFC win an MLS Cup and a Supporters’ Shield, claim a trio of Canadian club championships, reach the the Concacaf Champions League final, and establish itself as one of the major power-brokers in the North American club game.

It wasn’t easy, and not everything TFC touched turned to gold during Bezatchenko’s tenure. When the “Bloody Big Deal” morphed into the “Bloody Big Bust,” and the 2014 season ended with marquee signing Jermain Defoe returning home to England and with Toronto missing the playoffs yet again, an entire hen house appeared to come home to roost — never mind a few chickens — over the decision to hire an inexperienced GM.

But to ownership’s credit, they stuck with Bezbatchenko, even after Leiweke, the man who hired him, abruptly parted ways with MLSE. The organization then doubled down, allowing its young GM to splash millions on Designated Players (DPs) en route to building a team with the highest payroll in the league. Lost in the hoopla of the Defoe debacle was that Bezbatchenko was able to simultaneously land midfielder Michael Bradley, who was still in his 20s and playing for Serie A outfit AS Roma. Then, prior to the 2015 season, Bezbatchenko pulled off an amazing double coup, bringing in forwards Sebastian Giovinco (from Juventus) and Jozy Altidore (from Sunderland) to Toronto.

All three went on to become the cornerstones of the club, playing starring roles in TFC’s treble-winning year in 2017 when it won the MLS Cup (after losing in the 2016 final), the Supporters’ Shield and the Canadian club championship, as well as setting a new record for most points (68) in an MLS regular season. As captain, Bradley became the type of leader — both on and off the field — and the midfield general Toronto long needed. Giovinco and Altidore formed one of the most lethal goal-scoring partnerships in MLS history, with the diminutive Italian winning league MVP honours in his debut 2015 season.

It wasn’t just about the money, though.

Beyond the three DPs, Bezbatchenko brought in defenders Justin Morrow (now considered one of the best full-backs in MLS), Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour, midfielder Will Johnson, and goalkeeper Clint Irwin, all of them trusted MLS hands and the types of players that every team in this league needs to win. Foreign-based talent such as midfielders Victor Vazquez, Benoit Cheyrou and Nicolas Hasler, as well as defender Chis Mavinga, didn’t cost nearly as much as the DPs, but were hugely important pieces to the puzzle.

Draft picks Alex Bono (who supplanted Irwin as TFC’s starting goalkeeper and is now getting call-ups from the U.S. national team) and defender Nick Hagglund have proven to be true gems, as has Marky Delgado, who the Reds picked up for nothing after 13 other clubs took a pass on him in the 2014 MLS Dispersal Draft which redistributed players formerly contracted to Chivas USA.

The end result was that Bezbatchenko, working closely in conjunction with coach Greg Vanney, assembled one of the deepest and most balanced teams ever in the MLS, building a roster with league veterans, solid draft selections, promising prospects and foreign-born players.

That Bezbatchenko was able to do this, all the while expertly navigating the league’s myriad of convoluted roster and salary cap rules, made his accomplishment all the more impressive.

“I always go back to the salary cap. At the end of the season, the system is designed for the top teams to be cut down. It’s designed to create parity, and the way that the system does it is that the financial bonuses of the players always exceed the increase in the salary cap, so you’re going to have to shed players each year. That’s the most challenging part about it,” Bezbatchenko told Sportsnet in an in-depth interview in 2017.

“The salary cap always catches up with you. You can be creative in all sorts of ways … but the reality is that it’s very difficult in a salary cap league.”

Not every roster move Bezbatchenko made was a winner. Mistakes were made along the way, most notably last year when midfielder Ager Aketxe washed out and returned home to Spain long before the season was over. But overall, the batting average was pretty high, and Bezbatchenko proved to be an astute judge of talent, and a skilled negotiator who was able to routinely fill the holes on his roster with the right players amidst the usual turnover that was a by-product of the MLS salary cap.

He also, rather wisely, dumped Nelsen in August of 2014 and replaced him with Vanney. It was a bold move in that the Reds were in a playoff position at the time but trending in the wrong direction. Also, Vanney, a former MLS defender of some repute, had only previously served as an assistant coach. Vanney lacked experience, but he knew MLS and he possessed genuine “soccer smarts.” He also provided TFC with a newfound tactical flexibility. In his first season in charge, Vanney led TFC to its first ever playoff berth. He followed that up with back-to-back MLS Cup appearances, wining it all in 2017, the same season he was named the league’s coach of the year.

But now, Bezbatchenko is headed out the door, leaving TFC at a critical juncture. Fresh off its historic 2017 season when it brushed aside everybody who came before them, TFC went completely off the rails in MLS in 2018, posting a 10-6-18 record to finish ninth in the Eastern Conference, with a whopping 64 goals against (one of the worst defensive records in the league), and failing to make the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.

As a result, TFC now faces one of the most important and challenging off-seasons in franchise history as it must quickly retool in order to re-establish itself among the league’s elite.

The hole that Toronto FC has to currently dig itself out from isn’t nearly as deep as the one it was stuck in five years ago. But the man who was largely responsible for TFC being able to climb out of that crater has left town, and he’s taken his shovel with him.

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