TORONTO—Accepting the hard truth and adapting to it served Bill Manning well during his career as a professional soccer player.
Manning, a 50-year-old native of New York who was named Toronto FC’s club president on Monday, described himself as a “decent player” in college with good speed, natural athleticism and a dangerous shot. He used that combination of attributes to score a bunch of goals for the University of Bridgeport, and he guided the Purple Knights to a NCAA quarterfinal berth in 1986, the same year he was a first-team All-American.
But when Manning turned pro and played in the old United Soccer League, a coach converted him from a forward to a defender. Manning didn’t even bat an eye. He knew he wasn’t cut out to be a goal scorer. He rolled with it. No big deal.
“I said to my coach, ‘whatever keeps me on the field.’ I took it and was able to extend my playing career longer, because as a forward, at that level, I wasn’t going to be the guy creating and scoring goals. I took that advice and ran with it,” Manning told Sportsnet on Monday afternoon.
“Had I been in MLS (he retired before the league’s inaugural 1996 season) I would have been a role player, just sneaking into the 18. I wasn’t a very technical player. I was a workhorse.”
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Manning will try to bring that same philosophical approach to his new job where he will oversee all team and business operations for TFC. Manning is new to Toronto, but not to the position—he was president of Real Salt Lake from 2008 until this past August when his contract expired. During his time in Utah he was twice named MLS Executive of the Year (in 2012 and 2014), and Real Salt Lake won the MLS Cup in 2009.
Two prominent themes pepper Manning’s answers during his phone conversation with Sportsnet: Stability and consistency. They were the hallmarks of a successful Real Salt Lake side that he built with the help of former general manager Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis. And he hopes to bring stability and consistency to Toronto FC, a franchise that has seen massive turnover on all fronts since entering MLS in 2007.
“One of the lessons that Toronto has not learned over all these years was there has been constant turnover—whether it’s coaches, or in the front office. They’ve gone through countless players. The one thing I did at RSL with Garth and Jason is we had a large degree of stability that led to a lot of success,” Manning said.
“I look at the roster right now that TFC has, it’s a good roster; we don’t need to dismantle that. The issue is how we make it better. There’s no need to tear it down. Stability and consistency leads to a franchise that can compete for championships. That’s the goal.”
Manning later added: “Having a core group, and a philosophy of winning, and a culture of team work—that’s what I believe in. It breeds consistency and stability.”
He’s also not looking to replace current Reds coach Greg Vanney or general manager Tim Bezbatchenko any time soon.
“When I interviewed for the job I told the (MLSE) board that the last thing this organization needs is more change. This franchise doesn’t need to be overhauled. I’m very much about team work, and I also believe in a core group of players, and a core group of executives and coaches that you build around and you stay with,” Manning explained.
“One of the things I’m very proud of about my time at RSL was that we had a lot of consistency over the years. We only won one championship but we were competing every year. One of the keys to that was we had a core group of players—(Kyle) Beckerman, (Nick) Rimando, (Nat) Borchers, (Ned) Grabavoy—and a front office and coach who helped us to a lot of wins.”
MLSE had been looking to hire a new club president for over a year, and had talks with a number of candidates, including Italian executive Umberto Gandini, a club director at Serie A team AC Milan. MLSE also pursued former Real Salt Lake general manager Garth Lagerwey, and ex-Canadian national team coach Holger Osieck.
It was after TFC reached out to Lagerwey—who eventually went to Seattle—that Manning became interested in the position being offered by Larry Tanenbaum, Chairman of the MLSE Board of Directors.
“I had my eye on it. I always thought if I moved on from RSL that seems like a pretty good spot for me,” Manning said. “One of the things Garth said to me was, ‘that role is perfect for you one day.’ I kept that in the back of my mind.
“As my contract was coming to an end I actually had someone who I am close to reach out to Larry and said I’d be interested. Once we parted with RSL I had a chance to speak to whoever I wanted, I got a phone call from Larry and ended up visiting Toronto, and meeting with the board. And here I am in Toronto.”
Manning revealed he had other offers, including from two other teams he seriously considered. But it was MLSE’s “ambition” both on and off the field, as well as “the solid foundation that’s been put in place,” that tipped things in TFC’s favour.
Manning hopes to forge the same type of relationship with Bezbatchenko as he had with Lagerwey when they worked together at Real Salt Lake.
“I’m older than Tim and have a number of years in experience, and there are different things I’ve done in my career, so hopefully I can help guide him and provide some mentorship. He’ll be much more deeply involved in the player personnel side than I am, which is what a GM needs to do,” Manning offered.
Manning’s arrival represents a major change in TFC’s management structure. Since entering the league, TFC has generally operated with its GM as the team architect and final decision maker. The only dedicated club president they’ve had was Kevin Payne, who was also the club’s GM. Payne was fired by MLSE president and CEO Tim Leiweke in 2013 after less than a year on the job.
Even though there’s not a deep tradition of a dedicated club president at TFC, Manning believes that works in his favour.
“From meeting with the board, they’ve given me the keys to make my own path. I see that as a big positive, and it gives me the flexibility to manage and run this franchise how best I see,” Manning explained.
That being said, Manning warned that he’s not looking to come in and “put his stamp” on the franchise and make it his own. He’s one of only a number of key figures who have a role to play if TFC is going to enjoy long-term success.
“No one person can come into an organization and make it a success. It’s a team. You need the right coach, the right GM, the right coach. It all comes together. Hopefully, I’m one of the ingredients and the leader who can pull the whole thing together so you get a winning formula,” Manning stated.