GM Bezbatchenko: TFC’s success not all about spending money

Soccer insider James Sharman joins Faizal Khamisa to get us set for the MLS Cup final, and the intrigue of having the same matchup as last year, with both teams much improved.

TORONTO – Tim Bezbatchenko is in a very good mood, but not for the reason you think.

A day after this reporter “interviewed” his five-year-old son Jack at Toronto FC’s training centre – a chance meeting in the halls led to a brief Q&A; hard-hitting topics covered included his favourite toy, his cookie preference, and who’s his best friend – the club’s general manager excitedly explains over the phone how his oldest child relished his time in the spotlight

“He’s ready for a follow-up interview,” Bezbatchenko quipped.

A proud father of two children, Bezbatchenko has plenty to be thankful for during this holiday season, aside from his family. There’s also the small matter of TFC playing in the MLS Cup for a second consecutive year, and being on the brink of completing one of the greatest seasons in league history. All that stands in their way are the Seattle Sounders, the same team that beat the Reds in last year’s final on a frosty night in Toronto.

In the buildup to Saturday’s rematch at BMO Field, Bezbatchenko took time to talk one-on-one with Sportsnet on a variety of topics, including how this run to the MLS Cup compares to last year’s, the challenges of the league’s salary cap system in building a roster, and whether or not TFC has simply spent its way to success with the highest payroll in MLS.

You guys are back in the MLS Cup final, once again hosting the Seattle Sounders at BMO Field in the championship game. Does this feel any different than last year’s final?
It feels very different, for a couple of reasons. First, after the Philadelphia win [in the first round of the 2016 playoffs] there was this feeling of that could go all the way, but that we were going to take it one game at a time, and build on the momentum of the playoffs. With each step, we took we were doing something that this club had never done before – getting to MLS Cup. We came up short, and that was a new feeling.

This year, the entire season has felt different because we made it to MLS Cup, but to do something different was our goal, and that came in winning the Supporters’ Shield [the trophy that goes to the team that finishes the regular season in first place]. That was the goal in a lot of ways, to say, “hey, let’s treat every game throughout the year like it’s a final and see if we can be at the top at the end of the regular season.” Then, obviously, it was about getting to MLS Cup. Once we achieved the Supporters’ Shield, the focus turned to getting back to MLS Cup and winning it, while understanding that after what we went through last year, there are completely different ways of playing, and approaching the game. There’s this long book, and there’s chapters within that book, and I feel like this is the biggest chapter, but this is a different book than we wrote last year.

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You hinted it at it there, and I’m wondering if that’s one of the lessons the team learned from last year’s MLS Cup: the importance of winning games in different ways? As dominant as TFC looked in the regular season, both playoffs series were very gritty. It wasn’t about playing flashy soccer, but rather doing what you had to do to get a result.
Absolutely. You have to do that because each opponent in the playoffs presents a new challenge, not just because of the players on the field, but the time of the year. Just because we beat Columbus 5-0 in the regular season, that meant very little in a playoff setting. Just because we lost to Seattle last year in MLS Cup, it means very little going into this game.

There are so many things that changed from last year. Just getting back to MLS Cup is a feat in itself, and the game itself, I view it very much independent from the rest of the season.

In speaking to the players and coaching staff this week, nobody is really talking about getting back at Seattle – that this is about redemption for your guys, but not revenge. Michael Bradley said that this is about Toronto, and not about Seattle. Is that how you view it?
Very much so. Look, going back to last year’s MLS Cup, they won the game. We didn’t score, so they didn’t take or steal anything away from us. Did we feel like we did enough to win on the day? Yeah, maybe. But we didn’t. On that day, they lifted the trophy and they did what they had to do. For me, Saturday’s game is completely independent from last year’s final. Some of the players might feel like they had something taken from them and are out for revenge. For me, this is a goal we’ve had for ourselves, there’s various opponents along the way that you have to overcome to achieve that goal. So, we’re not thinking about it any other way in terms of our motivation.

If you don’t win on Saturday, how would you look back upon the 2017 season? Would you still consider it a success?
Look, we accomplished a lot, what with winning the Supporters’ Shield, repeating as Canadian champions, setting the record [for most points in a regular season, with 69] and getting back to the CONCACAF Champions League. I’ll say this, it would feel incomplete if we didn’t win MLS Cup. I’ll let you guys [the media] define what you think success is. Internally, I like where we’ve come from as a club. We’re very proud of where we are and the culture we’ve created. I’m very proud of the players and the way they carry themselves on a daily basis in terms of competing to win each game. That to me is a success. Some might say that’s a cliché or cheesy, but that’s how I honestly feel. But we want to win MLS Cup, and until we do it’ll feel incomplete.

As one of the chief architects of this team, can you speak to how difficult it was to build this roster? What are some of the challenges you faced in putting this squad together, especially in a salary cap league such as Major League Soccer?
Well, the salary cap is the big one. You have limited resources, unlike a lot of teams from around the rest of the world, and I don’t mean limited in the sense of an owner saying, “This is your budget, but you can go over it if you need to.” It’s a real limit in MLS, except for the three Designated Players and other mechanisms, such as TAM [Targeted Allocation Money].

You might have a vision of how you want your team to play, but there’s going to be limitations based on the salary cap, the youth coming through your academy system, or through the draft. The salary cap is the first challenge, and the second one is taking those players you draft and build up through the academy, and how you develop them into guys who can help you on the field. [Coach Greg Vanney] has done a masterful job in establishing an identity for this team – you need to rely on that to get you through hard times, and to always have something to fall back on if things you’re trying out in a game won’t work. That’s so important, but establishing that that identity isn’t easy. It takes time and lots of work.

The other challenge is that these guys are professional athletes, and so they have egos, and families, and you’re managing that throughout the course of the season. The leadership group on the team has done a very god job of managing that. And that’s just three challenges of how you build a roster, and how you create a successful team.

I have to think the salary cap is the biggest factor, though.
Oh, yeah. 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 shed players each year. That’s the most challenging part about it.

And that’s the biggest challenge for the league, too. We want to compete with the rest of the world. But we also want our best teams to keep getting better, rather than knocking them down to the middle of the pack in order to create this equal opportunity and parity. There’s these two conflicting things, and I think one of things that TAM is doing is helping all clubs, but certainly the ones at the top, improve their rosters.

The salary cap always catches up with you, though. You can be creative in all sorts of ways, and we’re always diligently working to keep as many of our players together. But the reality is that that’s very difficult in a salary cap league. And then you throw in stuff like expansion drafts, and other mechanisms where you lose players. You have all these mechanisms, all these wrenches that are thrown into the process, and you have to deal with them almost on a daily basis.

With that in mind, how important is it to have a good scouting network and a player recruitment department?
They’re huge. The scouting is just one aspect of it; to be able to identify the players that have the talent level, to compete in MLS and help this team is vital. The other aspect is how do you go about recruiting them? When they do come here for a visit, how do you sell them on the team? How do you put their family in a comfortable situation so that they can focus on playing? That, to me, is a big part of what we do – to make it as easy on the player and his family. Things happen in their lives – there are deaths in the families, there’s finding schools for the kids – and we’re in this together, and so we have to make sure that they are being taken care of.

Toronto had the largest payroll in MLS this season at just over $20.1 million US. The overwhelming majority of teams in the league spent less than $10 million on salaries this year. So, is it really all that surprising that TFC finished first and dominated the way they did considering the money it spent? Shouldn’t we expect you to win MLS Cup in light of how you’ve outspent every other team? I’m sure that’s something you hear quite often. Is that a fair criticism?
Yes and no. I think that’s an oversimplified view, and it’s an easy story and represents lazy thinking in some ways. But I think it’s fair, to a degree.

We’ve been allowed to go out and get three DP players. But the rules are equal for everyone. Everyone can go out and do it. I don’t think owners on other teams are lacking in financial resources. To a certain degree, I think it reflects our ambition as a club. I think you’d be sorely mistaken if you thought that’s all you need to do to be successful [to spend money on DPs] because if you look at the history of the league, and even leagues around the world, you’d find spending a lot of money doesn’t guarantee anything.

But we don’t shy away from that. We’re not trying to say critics are wrong who point that out, or that we shouldn’t be held to a different standard. What gets overlooked is that with the league’s salary cap, those three DPs take up a significant portion of your cap – it’s like, 38.5 percent over three players. If you don’t get those three players right, I would say it’s not just difficult, but nearly impossible to win. And if you can’t get the other pieces right around them, even if you do get those three DPs right – because you have less money to do it – it is nearly impossible to win.

So, I wouldn’t say it’s unfair [to suggest TFC is successful because it has the league’s highest payroll], but I would say it’s an incomplete assessment, and I would tell that person to do their homework on the league and its salary cap.

Toronto FC supporters get an inside look into their favourite club every Monday night at 11 p.m. ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. It’s an all-access pass with co-hosts Brendan Dunlop and Thomas Michalakos as they interview the biggest names around the team and preview and review of every TFC match.

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