It’s hard to think of a time in recent memory when Toronto FC fans felt more blindsided than they do today. Despite a warning days ago — which most people brushed off — social media went into a frenzy this morning with news that general manager Tim Bezbatchenko will, indeed, be leaving his home of five years and stepping into the president’s role at a new-look Columbus Crew SC.
All the #hottakes will surely rain down over the coming days, especially once TFC officially name a new GM (Ali Curtis seems the frontrunner right now, and he may even be announced tomorrow morning). For now, though, with the news fresh, let’s take an immediate look back at Bezbatchenko’s time in Toronto. What will his legacy be, when all’s said and done?
Bez came to Toronto in September 2013, taking the reins just 16 days after Kevin Payne — president and GM for just eight months — received an unceremonious pink slip in the midst of another terrible season. The Reds finished 17th in a 19-team MLS that year, 20 points out of the playoffs.
That was, realistically, the beginning of the end of Toronto FC’s dark years. Within four months, TFC were a different club. Only 13 players remained from the 25 that had appeared for the team in 2013. It’s not just that the Reds made some huge Designated Player signings — we’ll get to that in a minute. The wholesale roster turnover was pretty substantial.
Bezbatchenko brought back a fan favourite in Dwayne De Rosario through the Re-Entry Draft. He improved the club’s depth with players like Bradley Orr, Jackson, and, of course, Justin Morrow. Julio Cesar, while not technically a DP, was an absolutely massive addition, perhaps more for his experience than anything else.
But really, a lot of that was gravy on top of the major facelift the club received, in large part thanks to Bez. The major DP signings that winter pushed TFC into a new era; suddenly they were a team that flexed the financial muscle their ownership had at their disposal.
Gilberto. Jermain Defoe. Michael Bradley. Say what you like about the on-field performances of the former two, and their manner of departure, but after so many years of a cellar-dwelling TFC, that new gung-ho transfer attitude was refreshing as hell.
Things didn’t work out in 2014. At all, really. But shooters shoot, eh? No one can argue that TFC didn’t give it a shot that year.
Let’s call that 2014 side Bezbatchenko FC 1.0. The club learned from that experience, and made more big changes for the next year — to start 2015, TFC had nine new players, including Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, Benoit Cheyrou, and Marky Delgado. That winter also saw the arrival of Alex Bono in the SuperDraft, although it wasn’t until 2016 that he started getting regular minutes.
This is where TFC began to look more like they do today. The Reds made the playoffs for the first time ever, and even though they just squeaked in and received a thrashing at the hands of the Montreal Impact in the knockout round, they got in. That was new. It was probably for the best that they got the first one out of the way, and had a taste of success.
We all know where it went from there. TFC brought in Bill Manning as club president around the end of the 2015 season, and with him came a shift toward adding more proven MLS talent — think Drew Moor, Steven Beitashour, Clint Irwin. By then, the major pieces were in place, and Bezbatchenko FC 2.0 was looking scarier by the minute.
It’s always hard to tell whether Bezbatchenko or Manning was the engine behind any given transaction, but TFC were, by 2016 (and certainly by the end of 2017), a club with a strong reputation in the international transfer market. The pair raised Toronto FC’s stature, allowing them to add marquee pieces like Victor Vazquez and Gregory van der Wiel.
Obviously, not all the transfer credit goes to Bezbatchenko. Some goes to Manning, some goes to ownership, and some is probably also due to Tim Leiweke, who was a major catalyst of MLSE’s transformation over the past five years or so. Greg Vanney (who was a Bezbatchenko hire, of course) has earned himself a ton of kudos for putting it all together on the field as well.
And, Bez wasn’t without his faults. Ahmed Kantari was a flop. Ager Akexte was (to some bloggers’ disappointment) a flop. The Reds have certainly let a few players go whom they might’ve wished to have back — Raheem Edwards, Nico Hasler, and Stefan Frei come to mind. Plus, history will not look kindly on TFC’s feeble MLS Cup defence in 2018, and their failure to bolster their ranks significantly in the summer.
But still. Before Bezbatchenko took over, the Reds had an all-time record of 49-102-66 (they’re 72-65-38 since). They’d never made the playoffs, and they were just a year removed from Danny Koevermans calling his own club “the worst team in the world.” TFC had signed just eight academy players to first team deals, only one of which (Ashtone Morgan) is still with the club — the rest of the list includes the likes of Manny Aparicio and Keith Makubuya.
Since then, TFC have signed 10 academy players, including Jordan Hamilton and Jay Chapman. Granted, four of them were in the last year, but still. Toronto FC II only came into being on Bezbatchenko’s watch, in the fall of 2014, bolstering the Reds’ development pathway.
Seven of the club’s top 10 players in number of appearances were Bezbatchenko acquisitions (Jonathan Osorio, Ashtone Morgan, and Stefan Frei being the only exceptions), and six of the top 10 all-time scorers came in the Bezbatchenko era (seven if you count De Rosario’s second stint as a Bez signing, I suppose).
Toronto FC’s pre-Bezbatchenko trophy cabinet consists of four Canadian Championships and a couple Mickey Mouse Cups. The Bez era has an MLS Cup, two Eastern Conference championships, a Supporters’ Shield, four Voyageurs Cup, a Concacaf Champions League runners-up medal, and — crucially — three Trillium Cups.
TFC were the best team in MLS history in 2017, and came damn close to a jaw-dropping Concacaf Champions League a few months later. Both of those would’ve sounded like hilarious jokes had you heard them in September 2013.
At the time, giving Bezbatchenko the torch was a risk; he was a 31-year-old law school graduate who’d handled player contracts for the past few years in the MLS front office. That experience certainly showed in some of TFC’s financial acrobatics over the years as they tried to squeeze as much as they could out of the complicated salary cap and allocation money system.
It’s okay to be upset about this news, even angry. But Tim Bezbatchenko was, unequivocally, the best general manager Toronto FC have ever had. That’s not up for debate in any way at all. Without him, there’s no Giovinco. No Bradley, Altidore, or Vazquez. No MLS Cup.
Although his abrupt departure from Toronto will taint Bez’s reputation in the short term among TFC fans, it would be a shame for the end to be his lasting legacy. When all’s said and done, he was a major part of the best period in club history, and his fingerprints will remain all over this roster for a while. It’s fine to disagree with some of the club’s choices in 2018, but there’s absolutely no denying that Bezbatchenko’s track record is pretty good.
Bez will go down as an extremely friendly, accessible GM. He was the first of the golden management trio — with Manning and Vanney — to come to Toronto, and now he’s the first to leave.
Ultimately, Tim Bezbatchenko has seen Toronto FC go from minnow to monster in North American football, and the club is changed for the better because of it.
Let us know in the comments how you’ll remember Bez’s time here.