Toronto FC now has brainiac GM Tim Bezbatchenko to go along with up-and-coming manager Ryan Nelsen.
The underachieving MLS team has a $20-million training centre that is the envy of the league, a fan base that has stayed remarkably loyal considering the dreck put in front of it, and an owner willing to spend more than $25-million (U.S.) on two marquee designated players when the transfer window re-opens in January.
There is salary cap space and allocation money to spend, not to mention some talent available to move.
So is the dark age over for the 4-14-11 club, whose career league record is a woeful 49-102-66 going into Saturday’s home game against Sporting Kansas City?
“I do not think the dark days are over yet but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we control our own destiny,” said Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
“And now we have to do the heavy lifting to get there by January so we could look everyone in the eye and tell them this is a different era here in this organization. It’s not about flash, it’s not about spin. It’s about hard work, tough decisions, spending some money and making the right decisions. I think we’ll know that in January.”
No stranger to navigating multibillion-dollar sports empires, Leiweke is used to being the smartest person in the room. The 31-year-old Bezbatchenko may give him a run for his money, although the new GM is undoubtedly too smart to make it too obvious.
A lawyer with degrees from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Richmond, Bezbatchenko comes from the league’s inner circle.
As senior director of player relations and competition at Major League Soccer, he was a young league insider with intimate knowledge of MLS’s complicated legal landscape.
His brief at the league — a single entity structure in which players are signed to the league rather than the team — was to oversee and manage six clubs’ budgets and rosters, among other things. And his group included Toronto FC.
Bezbatchenko (pronounced bez-buh-CHENK-oh) clearly knows where the bodies are buried in MLS. Although Leiweke said exactly that about former president and GM Kevin Payne before firing him.
Bezbatchenko, a native of Westerville, Ohio, played midfield for the second-tier Pittsburgh Riverhounds in 2004-05, joining MLS in 2010 after two years with the law firm Shearman & Sterling.
Bezbatchenko was working in mergers and acquisitions at the law firm. Or as he explained, he was getting deal experience in buying and selling companies.
“This is the same, but you’re doing it with players,” he said of the move into soccer.
It’s not exactly a warm, fuzzy management approach. But top sports executives tend to be more ruthless than Ruth Buzzi.
Bezbatchenko’s job will be to help Nelsen get what he needs to continue the reconstruction of a moribund franchise.
Leiweke has given an unqualified vote of confidence to Nelsen, saying the new GM would have to work with him in 2014.
But it is clear that come January, if Nelsen gets the players he wants, the clock will be ticking on the manager.
Should Nelsen ever depart the team suddenly, he no doubt has a book in him. He has quietly cleaned one mess after another at TFC while staying mostly mum.
Leiweke made a point of noting that this is not rocket science. Hard work and good judgment are what’s needed.
“To be honest with you, this is not that difficult. There’s 11 slots and you need a couple of players per slot. And this is about filling in the boxes ... And one thing that Ryan pointed out, and I think he’s right, is it’s not like we’re 22 boxes away. We’re four or five boxes away. A couple of those are DPs.”
Those designated players are key, with Toronto eyeing international stars who can score goals while bringing some much-needed sizzle to the franchise.
The team has pushed back the deadline for season ticket-holders to put their money down to January so they can see what progress has been made.
Asked how long it takes to turn around an MLS team, Bezbatchenko smartly stepped around the crux of the matter. When pressed, he said it would be difficult to do it in one year “but our goal would be to have a nice upward trend over the next few years.”
Spoken like a true suit. Much of the talk Friday was about business plans, the right course and analysis.
Although Bezbatchenko worked himself into a verbal pickle when he talked about Toronto “not having a successful playoff run in, ah, well ever.”
The club has never made the post-season in its seven seasons in the league.
Some observers commented that Nelsen looked uncomfortable at the podium Friday, alongside Leiweke and Bezbatchenko. If so, it was likely because the former New Zealand international is more at home on the training field than in a suit — although he cleans up nicely.
Nelsen, 35, is smart enough to know he needs someone who knows the league and can do the spadework to unearth the talent he wants.
Bezbatchenko fits that bill.
“This is kind of a Theo Epstein hire,” Leiweke said, referring to the baseball executive.
Epstein, currently president of baseball operations for the Chicago Cubs, was 28 in 2002 when the Boston Red Sox made him the youngest GM in Major League Baseball history.
Bezbatchenko, who is married with a one-year-old son, acknowledged his goal has been to become a GM.
“Absolutely. It’s the reason I went to law school,” he said.
There is no shortage of grey matter in the Bezbatchenko household. His wife is in higher education with a PhD to her credit.
Leiweke said while commissioner Don Garber was loathe to let Bezbatchenko go, he saw the bigger picture. The league needs to fix Toronto as a franchise once and for all.
“He was in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and he went to the game and he saw what’s going on here,” Leiweke said of a Sept. 11 tie with the Chicago Fire that drew a season-low crowd of 15,217.
“I think he understands our pain ... And he knew that we need a big, bold statement. And amazingly he sees this the same way we do. It won’t be the biggest name in the business but it will be the best move we could have possibly made.”
Bezbatchenko has also been a key figure in an MLS partnership with the French Football Federation that sees MLS youth academy coaches learn from the French model.
Leiweke is a big believer in the role MLS academies can play, knowing if done right they can be a pipeline for cheap talent.
Toronto canned Payne on Sept. 5 with Leiweke saying the two were no longer on the same page.
Earl Cochrane, Payne’s right-hand man and Toronto’s director of team and player operations, was also fired. Chief scout Pat Onstad subsequently left.
Just minutes before Friday’s announcement at BMO Field, pictures of Cochrane and Onstad remained on the wall outside the news conference room. But they were gone by the time it started.
The team also wasted little time trading Argentine striker Maximiliano Urruti, Payne’s prize acquisition, to Portland after just 37 minutes action in a Toronto uniform.
For those wondering, Bezbatchenko grew up a Manchester United fan. He has since helped sign a Rooney, although unfortunately it was John — Wayne’s little brother.