Tim Bezbatchenko is back home, with a lengthy to-do list as president of Columbus Crew SC.
But his overriding mission is to build on the momentum from the “Save the Crew” campaign that helped keep the MLS team in his native Ohio.
“We’ve got to figure out ways to propel this team forward, both on the soccer side and the business side, to harness this energy,” the former Toronto FC general manager and senior vice-president of soccer operations said with enthusiasm in an interview. “We need to be communicating with our fans, we need to be reaching out to the soccer community. We need to be speaking with our current sponsors, our potential future sponsors.”
There are also jobs to fill, with some employees having left when the team was in limbo. Not to mention a roster to polish.
The 37-year-old Bezbatchenko knows the general lay of the land. He grew up in Westerville, a northeast suburb which he says is the Columbus equivalent of Vaughan or Richmond Hill in Toronto.
His parents have been Crew season ticket-holders from Day 1. “Passionate Crew supporters,” they tailgate every home game and sit centre-field, three rows up.
“It was hard for me to get them to wear red,” said Bezbatchenko.
Columbus played its first three seasons at Ohio Stadium on the Ohio State campus, before moving into what is now called Mapfre Stadium in 1999. Bezbatchenko, a high schooler back then, used to take in the games at the stadium, known as “the Shoe,” due to its horseshoe shape.
“Great memories there,” Bezbatchenko recalled.
After five successful years at Toronto’s helm, Bezbatchenko said he was not looking to move on. But there’s no place like home and the move was made official Jan. 4.
Bezbatchenko’s family will likely follow him south once the school year is done.
“It’s a tough one because we really settled in Toronto,” Bezbatchenko said. “We fell in love with the city and we weren’t going to leave for any other place.”
And then the Columbus opportunity came.
It was an opening that needed a lot of dominoes to fall first – fans launched the “Save the Crew” campaign, Cleveland Browns owner Dee and Jimmy Haslam and Crew team doctor Peter H. Edwards Jr. bought the franchise, agreeing to keep it in Columbus with plans for a new downtown stadium following.
Former Crew owner Anthony Precourt is now preoccupied with a new franchise in Austin, Texas.
The rebirth of the Columbus franchise appealed to Bezbatchenko. He sees it as “something different and new and unique and extraordinary in a lot of ways, given the last 18 months of this club where everyone thought it was leaving.
“And the fans and the ownership saved it. And it’s really something just different … a different project.”
Toronto hired Bezbatchenko out of the league head office in 2013, putting the then-31-year-old in charge of an underachieving club whose career league record was a woeful 49-102-66.
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.
Working with larger-than-life (and now departed) MLSE boss Tim Leiweke, Bezbatchenko fired manager Ryan Nelsen, installed Greg Vanney as coach and acquired impact designated players.
As Columbus president, Bezbatchenko will have his hands in everything, although he says the business side may need more immediate attention given the recent uncertainty over the team’s future.
He acknowledges he has plenty to learn.
“it’s been a long time since I’ve been in Columbus. Just because I’m from here doesn’t mean I know everything there is to know about this club. So I have a lot to learn, I have a lot of listening to do.”
While the business side of the franchise may hold his immediate attention, he’s not about to forget the product on the field.
“You can never take your eyes off the roster,” he said. “Things evolve so quickly.”
A look at his former roster in Toronto proves that with Sebastian Giovinco, Victor Vazquez, Gregory van der Wiel and Nick Hagglund having all moved during a tumultuous pre-season.
Bezbatchenko will be working with newly hired Crew coach Caleb Porter. Technical director Pat Onstad, a former Canadian international goalkeeper and former chief scout at TFC, is a holdover.
Bezbatchenko leaves Toronto with fond memories of building a championship roster. He is also grateful for the education he got sharing a boardroom with the likes of Raptors president Masai Ujiri, GM Bobby Webster and Teresa Resch, vice-president of basketball operations and player development, as well as Leafs president Brendan Shanahan and GM Kyle Dubas, along with MLSE business types at executive committee meetings.
He and team president Bill Manning also got to work with ownership at MLSE board meetings.
“It was a great experience both on the sporting and business side in Toronto,” Bezbatchenko said.
“A great experience and a primer for the challenge we’re facing here in Columbus, for sure,” he added.