Interviews

Tim Bezbatchenko, One-on-One: How a 'soccer wonk' turned Toronto into a force

USA TODAY Sports-Tom Szczerbowski

He's led the way as Toronto blossomed from perennial loser to cup contender. Get to know the man they call "Bez."

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Who deserves the credit for transforming Toronto FC from longstanding failure into MLS powerhouse?

It was general manager Tim Bezbatchenko who hired head coach Greg Vanney, brought Sebastian Giovinco to Canada and oversaw a rebuild that has the Reds streaking toward the Supporters' Shield, aiming for a second straight MLS Cup appearance, with legitimate hopes they'll take home the trophy this time.

Only 35, the former USL midfielder is one of Major League Soccer's sharpest minds, and his experience within the league's player relations and competition department provided an education that seems to give him, and TFC, a competitive advantage in a perennially wide-open league.

FourFourTwo connected with Bezbatchenko to talk about TFC's aspirations, what he learned in the league offices, whether he might one day run MLS, and why Toronto's diversity is such a plus for the club.

FOURFOURTWO: You lost in MLS Cup 2016 despite being what many considered the better side. Does that change expectations within the club and demands from your fan base?

TIM BEZBATCHENKO: I don't think it changed expectations internally. I think we have lofty expectations for ourselves.

Toronto had always signed Designated Players, but he wanted to change the model and go bigger.

Anyone who came to Toronto at the beginning of this project understood that this was going to be an extremely difficult turnaround, but at the same time, once we were able to create a winning culture, we were able to then have the ability to do great things. That starts from having high expectations of yourself, so I don't think anyone internally has different expectations after what happened last year.

I do believe the market, the city of Toronto – given its sports history across all its teams, in not having a winner – coming so agonizingly close and then losing on penalty kicks, I think that sets a bar that's really high, and our fans expect us to be competing now. And, obviously, if you're competing year in and year out, one of these days we're going to win it.

FFT: How much of your vision was in place when you joined the club? Did it change when you were in place and could see everything from the inside?

TB: It's interesting. We've evolved in the last four years. I would say Tim Leiweke brought me in, and he had a grand vision, which was using the abilities and the wherewithal of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment to be a team that's built on the Designated Player model.

That was needed, because, if you remember, we had won, frankly, nothing at that point, and it had been seven years. We had never made the playoffs, and our fan base was eroding. His vision at the time was: we're going to go and sign big players. Because Toronto had always signed Designated Players, but he wanted to change the model and go bigger.

I adopted that vision. We talked about training well, drafting well, and developing well, and if you could do all of those and then blend those together, you could create a dynamic team, a team that could create championship team down the road. It's difficult to do it quickly. We've made mistakes along the way, no doubt, but I think that, for the most part, we've done more right than wrong, and slowly each year we've made progress.

I honestly believe that where we were when I came on in 2013 was worse than an expansion team. We didn't have the allocation of an expansion team, we didn't have as many draft picks as some of the expansion teams, we didn't have Targeted Allocation [Money]. We had less to work with. So it took a little bit more time. Which is fine, and still I think we'd at least gotten to a competitive position in the second year, which I think helped launch us into a very successful year in 2016.

NEXT: On TFC's past failures and embracing the "soccer wonk" label

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