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Toronto FC Sebastian Giovinco, left, battles for the ball with New York City FC Ethan White during the first half of MLS soccer action in Toronto on May 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto FC Sebastian Giovinco, left, battles for the ball with New York City FC Ethan White during the first half of MLS soccer action in Toronto on May 18, 2016. (Mark Blinch/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Strong management of Toronto FC is finally paying off Add to ...

Toronto FC is the latest sign the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd. formula for running sports teams, at least the revised formula circa 2013, can actually work.

With a 2-0 lead over New York City FC in the two-leg Major League Soccer Eastern Conference semi-final going into the away game at Yankee Stadium on Sunday, Toronto is essentially one goal from a trip to the conference final. A win, a tie or even a one-goal or two-goal loss (as long as it’s not 2-0) allows TFC to advance. Since away goals are the first tiebreaker, if TFC scores once, the New Yorkers would have the nearly impossible task of scoring four goals to win the series.

This is heady territory for the team, which won its first playoff game only 10 days ago. TFC has spent almost all of its 10-season history disappointing its rabid fan base, in keeping with the old MLSE reputation for making millions off the field but only mayhem on it.

However, a change in MLSE management philosophy a few years ago propelled TFC, along with the Toronto Raptors, into the ranks of the contenders.

That is, use the MLSE millions, reaped mostly by the Toronto Maple Leafs and latterly the Raptors, to attract the best management talent available. In this case, it is TFC general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who was hired in September, 2013, and president Bill Manning, who arrived a year ago.

The new MLSE philosophy gives managers carte blanche to do what it is needed to succeed, whether it involves tearing down the rosters, or building the best facilities for the players and, in TFC’s case, signing a trio of big international stars to such large contracts that the club’s profit is wiped out.

Then-MLSE president Richard Peddie bought TFC as a Major League Soccer expansion team for $10-million (U.S.) in 2007, which turned out to be a bargain.

“Off the playing field, it was the best business deal I ever did,” Peddie said earlier this week. “Within about a year, two years, we were making more money than about 25 NHL teams.”

And 10 seasons later, thanks to the growth of MLS to 20 teams in 2016, complete with a U.S. television deal with ESPN, the average franchise is worth close to $200-million (U.S.).

That financial success was thanks to the thousands of soccer fans who embraced the team. They packed BMO Field at Exhibition Place on the shore of Lake Ontario and kept TFC among the MLS leaders in attendance.

However, the success did not carry through on the field as a parade of coaches and general managers went through the TFC front office as the team did nothing but lose.

Consider this: TFC head coach Greg Vanney is the ninth man to hold the job in the team’s 10-year existence. The list of players who passed through the TFC roster is much, much longer.

“I will take the fault for that,” Peddie said. “We were changing coaches way too fast, we were changing general managers, players, there was no stability.”

Part of the problem was simply a shortage of qualified people. MLS started in 1996, so there was no large supply of executives who understood its quirky setup, where player contracts were controlled through the league and there was a strict salary cap.

“We were hiring guys from Europe we really didn’t know,” Peddie said.

The low point came after the 2010 season, as MLSE raised ticket prices for 2011 despite the fact TFC remained at the bottom of the league standings. There was an uproar from the fans and attendance dipped. But no real action from management came until 2012 when ticket prices were reduced.

The TFC reins passed from Peddie and then MLSE chief operating officer Tom Anselmi to incoming MLSE chief executive officer Tim Leiweke in the early summer of 2013.

This coincided with a change in team-management philosophy throughout MLSE. Leiweke, who blew into Toronto with gale-force winds of publicity, gets the credit for the change but some of it originated with Peddie and Anselmi. They realized each team needed a strong manager and set about to find them.

Masai Ujiri was hired as GM of the Raptors in May, 2013, and Brendan Shanahan became president of the Maple Leafs almost a year later. In between, Leiweke hired Bezbatchenko, shortly before MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum and Leiweke promised to spend $100-million on its three designated players (international stars who did not count on the MLS salary cap) and another $120-million on renovations for BMO Field.

In Bezbatchenko, 35, TFC finally had a GM who knew the MLS inside and out. The native of Westerville, Ohio, played some minor-league professional soccer but his real résumé was as a lawyer who worked for years in the MLS front office handling player contracts. He agreed with Peddie on the club’s problems.

“Everyone felt Toronto had a lot of the ingredients to be a consistent contender, a, perennial champion,” Bezbatchenko said. “They just hadn’t found a way to get it right for one year.

“A lot had to do with change. There was so much change; instability in the roster, instability in the front office. When I came in, that was the first thing [to address].”

Bezbatchenko landed star U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley but there were still some hiccups ahead. English star Jermain Defoe wanted out quickly, so Bezbatchenko traded him for striker Jozy Altidore. And incumbent coach Ryan Nelsen was fired in August, 2014, and replaced by Vanney, who is an MLS lifer like Bezbatchenko.

“I compare [TFC’s situation in 2014] to an expansion team,” Bezbatchenko said. “But I don’t even think we had the assets an expansion team has, which is additional salary cap space, being at the top of all the drafts and the buzz of being a new team. All we had was the opportunity to change the roster and change our culture.”

Bezbatchenko completed the designated-player list in early 2015 by signing Italian international striker Sebastian Giovinco. With him and Altidore leading the attack and Bradley directing the back end, TFC had one of the most effective designated-player trios in the league by this season.

It costs a pretty penny, though, more than $20-million a year for all three. Peddie noted that spelled the end of TFC’s profitable days. But, as he said, “It works. They’re in a good position to go to the Eastern final, maybe against Montreal [Impact].”

However, those nasty old hiccups came back. TFC made the playoffs for the first time in 2015 but were embarrassed by the Impact with a 3-0 loss in the one-game knockout round. The difference this time was that with Manning, Bezbatchenko, Vanney and the scouting staff, TFC had the management smarts to find a fix.

“If you look over the last five years, on the successful rosters there’s certain numbers of MLS experience, and playoff experience and age in terms of players being in their prime,” Bezbatchenko said. “Those are common factors no matter what the sport.

“This off-season we looked at where we were. We were good on offensive side of the field but we needed to shore up our defence. It’s not rocket science.”

Then came four key acquisitions – goaltender Clint Irwin in a trade with the Colorado Rapids, defenders Steven Beitashour (trade with Vancouver Whitecaps) and Drew Moor (free agent) and midfielder Will Johnson (trade with Portland Timbers). All are MLS veterans and the oldest are Moor, 32, and Johnson, 31.

Moor said the sorry history of TFC did not deter him or anyone else from coming to Toronto. They saw an opportunity with Giovinco, Altidore and Bradley. “We wanted a chance to play with all these good players,” he said.

The four additions helped transform TFC from the worst defensive club in MLS in 2015 into one of the best this season. Armando Cooper, a Panamanian midfielder who can beat opponents on the dribble, arrived at mid-season in 2016 and became another important player.

As for the fans, all of the MLSE transgressions are forgiven. They came back in even bigger numbers over the past two seasons, as BMO Field’s capacity was expanded to 30,000. The bond is such that TFC players routinely jump into the stands after big goals to celebrate and stick around after the match for more.

In addition to their success on the field, TFC players can also boast of a first-class training facility on the site of the old military base at Downsview in northern Toronto. Add it all up, says Bezbatchenko, who attributes the success to everyone from the top of MLSE to the lowest scout on the TFC payroll, and recruiting players becomes a lot easier.

“The cliché is success begets success,” Bezbetchenko said. “Once you have an identity, players talk to each other, they see how players are treated.

“At TFC, they see the fans and their support. It becomes a destination. Then they see the way Greg Vanney plays soccer, which is an attractive style of soccer, an entertaining style of play. All this drives the team forward.”

This was confirmed by Bradley, who said this week TFC’s recent success has brought inquiries from all sorts of acquaintances, including former teammates in Europe.

“The amount of texts and messages I’ve gotten from people I know, friends, other guys around the league, in Europe who are watching our games on TV at the moment and going, basically, ‘Where are you guys playing, what stadium is that?’” Bradley said. “They’re in disbelief about the atmosphere we have and the advantage the fans in this city are giving at the moment. It’s special.”

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