Interviews

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

USA TODAY Sports-Tom Szczerbowski
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FFT: When you joined Toronto FC, you were described as a “soccer wonk” and a “stats guy,” which hinted at a kind of “Moneyball” thing. Was that a fair description?

TB: It seems like some people were taking an angle of something different that Toronto FC hadn't tried before, because God knows that they had tried many different profiles. They used Premier League coaches, Dutch internationals and German internationals.

I think, frankly, it's not inaccurate. I actually wrote my undergrad [paper at the University of Richmond] on the single-entity structure, and in law school I wrote a paper on the single-entity structure, so I tried to view the rules and I obviously worked on the budget [while with MLS].

I was a No. 8 who wanted to be a No. 10, as we all did.

I would say it was a fairly easy way to describe me, if you weren't really [looking at] some of the other experiences I've had, but I embrace that wholeheartedly, that profile. Because I think every organization needs someone who's going to understand the rules and be, frankly, a soccer junkie. And not just a soccer junkie, but an MLS junkie.

Those of us in MLS who grew up watching games at 2 in the morning, and Rob Stone and ESPN, and even before that, Soccer America when it was a newspaper, before it was a magazine. It's important to have those players within your organization, whether or not that's a GM or someone else.

FFT: There's certainly trial and error when you're putting things together almost from scratch. Was signing Sebastian Giovinco the turning point?

TB: The vision of the Designated Player was that we wanted to bring in players that were still in their prime. And I think Michael Bradley was, in a lot of ways, the very first player to come back [to MLS] in his prime, a well-known player that's playing for a top club in Europe. That frankly that was the first time that's ever been done. And then I think in combination with Giovinco, who also was at a top club, he was the first [in-his-prime] international really to choose the league – in recent years.

USA TODAY Sports-Dan Hamilton

USA TODAY Sports-Dan Hamilton

Obviously, in the early years, back in 1996 and that first era to 2001, there were a lot of stars then that I don't want to disrespect, but when the league turned a corner in 2005 to 2007, when we were building soccer-specific stadiums, we weren't a league that top players around the world had chosen. And the league said it wanted to be a league of choice back in, I think, 2011, I feel like the combination of Michael and Seba reflected a turning point for Toronto FC, for sure.

FFT: You played at the University of Richmond and two seasons in the USL with the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. What kind of player were you?

TB: I was a No. 8 who wanted to be a No. 10, as we all did. I was very much a box-to-boxer, a workhorse with some technical ability. My favorite player was Zinedine Zidane growing up, and I very much appreciate the pass before the goal. [Toronto FC newcomer] Victor Vazquez is, for me, a reflection of that.

The most difficult part of the game is being able to find players in very difficult spots on the field and work within that space to create chances. I think that's what's fun about the game. That's what I love about the game. Certainly as a center midfielder, that's what I was forced to do. Obviously, not at the MLS level.

FFT: Was it hard to step away from the field?

TB: I think once I graduated from university, [playing professionally] was a decision to do something for a couple of years. At that time, the USL was not really a feeder system into MLS. This was just a couple of years after [MLS] contraction and there was a tremendous amount of competition [for roster spots] in the league, and players were not moving up from USL into MLS.

Pittsburgh was an opportunity to be a professional soccer player, and we had a great season in 2004, we won [our division] that year. But I was already studying to go to law school, to eventually get into soccer in another capacity.

NEXT: Building TFC's identity...and sticking to it