TORONTO — When Bill Manning took over as president of Toronto FC in October 2015, his belief was the best move was no move when it came to GM Tim Bezbatchenko and head coach Greg Vanney.
“I did not come in intending to make moves,” Manning said in an interview. “I wanted them to prove my theory correct in that the last thing TFC needed was another coaching change and another member in the general manager seat.
“First and foremost TFC needed stability,” he added.
Manning ensured that Friday when the MLS team announced that both Bezbatchenko and Vanney had been rewarded with new contracts. Their existing deals, which were to expire at the end of this season, have been replaced with new contracts that run through the 2020 season.
There is also an option for 2021 with Bezbatchenko who gets senior vice-president of soccer operations added to his title in recognition of duties he is already carrying out.
“We’re all here for the long haul, to build a perennial championship contender,” said Manning.
“It’s a really good day for TFC,” he added.
There have been more than a few good days recently. Toronto, which made it to the MLS Cup final last year only to lose to Seattle in a penalty shootout, is currently tied with the Chicago Fire atop the league at 11-3-5.
The team has yet to lose this year at BMO Field, which has become a raucous fortress.
While the new contracts are not a surprise, they took a while coming. Manning said although verbal agreements had been in place for some time, he wanted everything signed and sealed before the announcement was made.
Soon after taking charge, Manning watched TFC get humiliated 3-0 in Montreal in its first ever playoff game. Many new bosses might have pulled the trigger to put their own people in place. Manning, a two-time MLS executive of the year at Real Salt Lake, stayed the course.
While he thought both Bezbatchenko and Vanney were very much works in progress, he liked what he saw.
“They spoke the same language as me,” said Manning, who saw greatness in the club’s future.
Manning also wanted to put an end to the revolving door approach that had seen eight managers in the franchise’s first eight seasons.
Bezbatchenko was just 31 when he came on board as GM in September 2013 from the league’s head office where he had served as senior director of player relations and competition.
“I do not think the dark days are over yet but I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel and we control our own destiny,” Tim Leiweke, then president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, said at the time.
Toronto’s career league record was 49-102-66 when Bezbatchenko took over. The club has gone 53-45-28 since with Bezbatchenko, along with chief scout Jack Dodd and others, proving adept at finding the pieces needed to keep the TFC engine humming.
MLS commissioner Don Garber described Bezbatchenko as “wicked smart.” The young GM also proved to be adept in office politics.
When the relationship with former manager Ryan Nelsen soured, Bezbatchenko summoned local reporters and challenged the team two-thirds of the way through the 2014 season “to take it up a notch.” Nelsen, who had not been warned of the GM’s move, predictably fired back and was promptly fired.
Bezbatchenko then elevated Vanney, his assistant GM and academy director, to head coach and technical director.
“I think we share a similar vision in how the game should be played,” Bezbatchenko said Friday.
The plan revolves around winning with the clock ticking. The team lounge has trophy cases waiting to be filled, other than the one with the Voyageurs Cup in it. The weight room wall also has space assigned to mark trophies and championships.
Manning sees Bezbatchenko as a possible MLS commissioner down the line, a prediction that left a smiling Bezbatchenko temporarily speechless.
Like Bezbatchenko, Vanney has grown into his job.
A former U.S. international defender who worked in the Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake organizations after retiring, Vanney has proved to be a deft tactician who is good at management.
Under Vanney, Toronto has become one of the more sophisticated teams in MLS, able to switch tactics as needed. He has also managed to keep his well-stocked, well-paid roster happy.
Apart from the occasional outburst from mercurial star striker Sebastian Giovinco, whose silky skills are housed in the body of an Italian Dennis the Menace, the Toronto FC squad is remarkably even-keeled.
Vanney is the cool head presiding over the squad, a student of the game who is never far from a screen so he can do some more soccer homework. “Someone who’s not afraid to take risks but someone who’s also smart enough to realize when something doesn’t work,” said Manning.
Take captain Michael Bradley, who came on board in January 2014. Under Nelsen, the U.S. international midfielder tried to be all things in all parts of the field.
Vanney, initially, wanted Bradley “to feel the freedom to move forward and drive the team.” Today, Bradley shields the defence and connects the dots. He can do more, but his value is closing down attacks and sending his teammates the other way.
While Vanney is willing to put an arm around a player’s shoulder, the 43-year-old father of four is also not averse to tough love. Players earn their playing time.
Under Vanney, TFC is 46-36-32 in regular-season and post-season play.