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Toronto FC Season Ending Press Conferences Day Two – Tim Bezbatchenko

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An inside look at the Tim Bezbatchenko Press Conference, and his belief that the club is headed in the right direction after a season that many considered to be a blatant disappointment.

The Man Behind the Glasses
The Man Behind the Glasses
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

Given that the entirety of the conferences were streamed and most other outlets will be providing thorough coverage of what was said, Waking the Red will take a slightly different tact, attempting to highlight the overarching issues and parse some of that which was not said, as well as providing some enhanced observations on the dialogue.

As such, we shall forego the niceties of the cold, distant observer and take on the informal perspective of the first person. 

First, by way of introduction, a touch of scene setting: It had been some time since I’d been up at the training facilities at Downsview Park in the northern limits of the city. The last time was prior to the grand opening of the site, when hard-hats and knee-high rubber boots were required.

My group on that day included both Aron Winter and Jim Brennan – as I said, it has been some time since I last graced the marvelous facilities.

And they are marvelous.

Or at least they are now, cleaned and polished; that scent of drying concrete and dust, scores of exposed wires, and the threat of tripping over various forms of debris gone.

Modern, with a stylish touch of the rustic – all corrugated stainless steel, exposed beams and ducts; faux-reclaimed wood and open-concept design abounds.

As one approached, the players could be seen partaking in a training session; from what was visible, it was a rather loose assembly. There was a little too much Argos gear about for comfort, but seeing as they train up there now too, it should have been expected – they were all incredibly friendly, ‘hellos’ a requirement upon passing by.

In keeping with the informalities, Tim, as Mr. Bezbatchenko shall hence for be known, took the opportunity of his opening remarks to thank the room for their coverage, remarking that the struggle for visibility that takes place in other MLS markets is simply not a factor and for that the club is appreciative.

Admitting that it was a failure to have not made the playoffs, Tim emphasized that the club remained relevant until deep in the season – much deeper than usual – and that they were trending in the right direction – that would become a theme of the event.

Tim was confident and calm, soft-spoken, but with enough certainty as to reassure any doubters – for the most part anyways.

The discussion continued with the whys – as in why no playoffs – and Tim had some reasonable explanations: a lack of on-field consistency, injuries, and officiating consistencies. But perhaps the most interesting note was the lack of runs.

If one takes a look at the MLS form guide, what stands out is how streaky teams can be. Teams that win – or at least don’t lose – tend to do so in bunches; teams that lose – or don’t win – similarly find such results fall in clumps.

A club can do both and still make the playoffs – such as New England did, with their two five-match winning streaks either side of an eight-game losing skid – as long as they fall in the proper proportions.

Toronto could never find the consistency, of either play or personnel, to put together such runs, their six-game unbeaten run through the World Cup break (with just three wins contained within) was their longest of the season, never taking points in more than three or losing more than three straight.

Up next the issue of club depth – one of the ongoing themes of the season - was discussed, Tim stressed that the club definitely had more than before; confident in having a core group of five-ten guys around whom a winning side could be built. There will not be sixteen-plus changes in this group as there were in the previous off-season – consistency, another of those themes emerged; backed with the emphasis on progress.

Admittedly, there were holes that needed to be addressed, when asked for specifics, Tim pointed towards the goals-against (54) – no playoff team conceded more than fifty on the season and both those who did – Los Angeles and New York, scored far more than TFC’s 44; 65 and 55, respectively.

Special note was made of the void felt by the side without the leadership of Steven Caldwell.

The obligatory questions on the future of Jermain Defoe, framed around the context of a recent article in The Guardian, were asked; as to be expected there were no revelations to be had – he is still under contract, there are no offers on the table, no plans in the works.

But Tim did admit to a certain frustration – not his own, per se, but a general frustration. Be it the fans, the city, the club, the players. There is an impatience; good in the sense that it drives and strives, but bad in the sense that it doesn’t always allow for perspective.

Brand is a vile word when it comes to sport, but when meant in the esoteric sense of identity and values, rather than the pejorative commercial one, it is a powerful concept.

Such a brand, one that attracts players and garners attention, in international transfer speculation for example, is something that is not built in a day; Tim made the cogent point that while such rumour can cause dismay, it is a discussion that he wants his club to be a part of, a sign of that brand moving towards the bigger stage.

This is a market, according to Tim that is rife with potential, something he dreams about every night (apparently); platitudes of educated fans and a certain soccer sophistication were spread along with the admittance that he would rather hear boos than the silence of apathy – another valid point.

The recent piece in The Toronto Sun, referring to possible behind the scenes dealing in the Defoe camp, was also addressed , if only to skirt the issue by highlighting that it brought to light that players, like all people, are multi-dimensional – they have lives beyond the pitch that must be acknowledged.

A fact that fans do not always get to see, something that he hoped to change in the future – such real-life vignettes as Caldwell having breakfast with his kids and De Ro doing the same on his show as he prepared on gameday, clips that regularly appear on GolTV, were steps in that direction, of which more can be expected.

The other bit of player news that was addressed was that of this highly-secretive transfer of Doneil Henry – and subsequent loan back to Toronto for this past season and perhaps the next. The level to which the club is playing coy with the details of this transfer and the timeline for revealing information is astonishing, leading one to speculate that they have very specific reasons for doing so.

In order to maintain some semblance or journalistic propriety – must have some standards – we will not speculate as to what those reasons are (at least in the article, the comments section is fair game and fertile ground), but needless to say, the club would not be this obtuse about it unless they had to, for one reason or another.

It should be said that the lack of forthcoming information did raise the hairs on a neck or two in the room – it is hard to do the job of a journalist when such simple information is withheld; though that is an MLS specialty.

Conversation shifted towards the coach, both the departure of Ryan Nelsen and the assessment of Greg Vanney’s short-time at the helm of the club.

When asked if perhaps the coaching change should have come sooner, Tim was honest in stating that there may have been better, earlier times to make the switch, but that such speculation, relying on the perfection of hindsight was irrelevant.

There was no room for second-guessing; it was a decision not based entirely on results, but on vision and club culture – vague, but instructive in its own way. That theme of this season’s disappointment functioning ex post facto as a launching pad for the future came to the surface again.

When asked about Vanney, it became clear that both Tim and Greg were on the same page in terms of vision and culture. Admitting once again that they fell short of the stated goal, Tim emphasized that they were going back to work, analyzing the culture and gearing up to prepare better for next season, while taking the time to praise the sheer volume of preparation that Vanney commits to every aspect, each minute detail, of his charge as coach, whether analyzing game film or rationalizing the purpose of each and every drill.

It stands to reason that such a detailed approach is one that was never likely to succeed in the short-term. Trying to impose such a vision on another man’s team without being able to prepare and brace the side as required was likely doomed to failure – that is not to say that such an approach, built from preseason onward, cannot find success.

One of the other themes of the dissection emerged, that of fitness and overtraining – something that has been alluded to in recent weeks and a subject that Greg addressed more fully in his inquisition. The sheer volume of training days missed by players, implied to be caused by the mismanagement of individual workloads, was a major failure of the previous regime.

The most endearing moment of the conference came in the midst of a confusing question that boiled down – more or less - to how the club assesses the players and determines if they are getting value out of the money spent on each individual performer; a long-winded way of discussing the value for money in each contract, something that TFC has definitely failed to do well in the past.

Tim could not seem to get the core of the convoluted line of questioning, but stated that he and Greg are constantly in contact, sharing late night phone calls discussing players from the under-tens to the first team on a regular basis – additional proof that they are on the same page and constantly evaluating what they have.

The conversation turned to how Tim rated himself in his first season as a General Manager, and here things took a somewhat unexpected turn.

He laid out a clear vision of what his role is: to take an entire view of the club, both in the short and long terms, stating that making the playoffs was one step on the way to becoming a club that wins consistently over the coming three to five-year period, while developing essential structures within the institutional whole.

Concepts such as the player pathway: from academy to the first team – including either the establishment of or further affiliation with a USL PRO side; a scouting network: both domestic and international – one that was independent of the particular coach or manager in place; and the formation of an analytics database, all subjects that have been touched upon in recent weeks were specifically mentioned.

Again that theme emerged, in all these ways, the club was trending towards the positive; was on a good path.

Evaluating success, especially given the tumult that yet another season has evolved into, is a tricky prospect. Stating the playoffs were the goal in a season that was in truth a rebuilding one, was likely overly ambitious and a declaration that likely did not envisage both Defoe and Tim Leiweke failing to settle in place. So much can happen over the course of a season that changes its outlook.

When asked about where the club would be looking to strengthen, Tim emphasized at the back and at being more unpredictable in attack. And when bluntly asked if he expected to have the same three designated players in 2015, he stated yes, but that that could change – an honest, if slippery response.

Throughout the questioning yet another chain that emerged - and was of interest - was that Tim seemed more involved in the tactical vision, using buzz-phrases like possession with purpose, than a simple capologist would be. He clearly shares that vision with Vanney, who would elaborate more in his time in front of the microphone – it was a vision, a culture, a brand, that was rather seductive when elucidated.

That question of value from players resurfaced, framed under the guise of whether Vanney was able get more out of them than Nelsen was, with Tim noting that though results were the same (or slightly worse) the commitment, purpose, preparation, and most importantly, the values of the club, were raised – again some rather ethereal concepts.

Tim next fielded a question that looked towards next season, in particular, the salary cap and the implications of the upcoming CBA (collective bargaining agreement) and how the club would approach that uncertainty.

He did well to ignore the CBA aspect – the league no doubt has ideas that are not to be spread in public about how that will take shape before next season begins – instead making the rather counterintuitive point that the budget number is not the starting point when dealing with the cap.

His primary focus is on the player, choose the players and make the rest work around it; he will be sitting down with Vanney to assess players, look over the contracts, and go on from there.

The spectre of hiring a new coach, rather than sticking with Vanney, was raised and swatted away gracefully with an affirmation that Greg, who has experience in MLS both as a player and a coach, albeit limited, is set to do well both tactically and technically in his position – a statement Greg backed up with his lucid analysis in the next session.

The slight jab at former employees, who hung up their boots and started coaching, was less graceful, but fair enough.

Time was running long, and the dissection had begun to wear on all involved.

A pair of final questions, one dealing with the need to get more out of the attacking midfield position – with Michael Bradley and Jonathan Osorio mentioned as capable, but admittedly it was an area of interest in the off-season - and on how the replacement of Tim Leiweke in the larger structure of MLSE would affect the club – saving perhaps the best question for last.

Tim stated confidently that other Tim, Tim W, had raised the profile of the soccer club to the level of the other properties and whoever came in as his replacement would acknowledge that new reality; the base that Leiwke built. Further stating that ownership was 100-percent behind the team and MLS, that any funds from sales would be reinvested and that the USL PRO franchise was a possibility in discussion.

Toronto fans are right to have concerns about that final question, as there is a need for, if not the vision, then the goals of the smaller club to be reflected in the larger organization; time will tell how that plays out.

With that, part one of the second day of TFC season-ending conferences came to an end.

Some tasty sandwiches, a fresh cup of coffee and a slice of cake – as well as some chit-chat and commiseration - would soothe the air, as the collected media regrouped for the second conference of the session, with Toronto FC head coach, Greg Vanney.