TORONTO – In MLSsoccer.com’s conversation with Tim Bezbatchenko this week, history, milestones and the importance of achieving the ultimate prize were not the only topics.
The Toronto FC general manager also looked forward, to how this current TFC side and its manager will be seen with time, on the inevitability of roster turnover in a salary cap world and the potential for success in international competition.
Though the club is in the conversation for 'greatest team' in MLS history, for Bezbatchenko, head coach Greg Vanney does not get the credit he deserves for leading them there.
“The credit for coaches and clubs lags behind,” said Bezbatchenko. “People will come to appreciate Greg, this team and what they have accomplished with time. [In the moment] people aren't reflecting upon the way that we play, the moves that Greg has made; his ability to manage high profile players, but also develop depth at the same time is something not fully appreciated.”
Not that the lack of recognition will bother Vanney in the slightest.
“That's one of the great things about Greg,” noted Bezbatchenko. “He's not looking for credit. That's what makes him the great coach he is.”
One of the difficulties of any of these 'greatest ever' conversations is that it is just about impossible to compare different eras. The MLS of 1998 and the LA Galaxy of that time are so vastly different from the league in 2017 and TFC. Not only has the league more than doubled in size since that time, but the individual clubs and their resources and options are incomparable. A side like 2017 Toronto could not have been built in 1998.
Perhaps a better question: Are TFC the culmination of all that an MLS side can be in this day and age?
“I hope so,” responded Bezbatchenko. “Our goal is to be a consistent contender; to compete and be internationally recognized; to be a leader in player development. We want to [create] a modern football club in MLS.
“To do that in a salary cap system, which is really designed to keep the top teams from being too good, you have to avail yourself through every opportunity to improve your roster. From your academy all the way up to [Targeted Allocation Money] and Designated Players.”
But time waits for no team.
“You have to shed players once their salary gets too high, once they hit too many performance bonuses. You're chopping [the better teams] off at knees in order to maintain parity,” lamented Bezbatchenko. “Our goal is to be innovative, think creatively, and leave no stone unturned.”
Part of that is planning well in advance.
“[You can't] wait until you make CONCACAF [Champions League] to start preparing; you always have to have [a plan] in the back of your mind,” said Bezbatchenko. “We went after winning the Canadian Championship in 2016 and 2017. Before, I don't think we prioritized it because competing in [the Champions League] would have been too much for the group. We hadn't had success domestically.
“What you have seen in MLS is it's been done backwards. Teams that have done well in the Champions League have not done as well in the league. We need to flip that. [You] need to do well domestically and then put in yourself in a position to make a deep run in CONCACAF. The [Toronto] roster is ready now; evolved to get there.”
But still one hears the ticking of the clock as key members of Toronto’s roster approach the end of their contracts.
“[Keeping a core group together for an extended period] is very difficult and after a while it's impossible. The system eventually wins,” admitted Bezbatchenko. “Contracts catch up to you, players will deserve and ask for more money; you'll have to make tough decisions. You have to have succession planning in place.
“That's the challenge: how do you have replacements and substitutions available so that you don't see a drop in talent or the level of the team.”
And though one might think that an increase in resources at a club would make that task easier, Bezbatchenko disagrees.
“Having more resources increases the pressure,” he said. “Your scouting has to be better because there is more on the line. It's easy when it's a clean cap, with no TAM and no DPs, and you have to work within the system and you can only afford $250K–300K players. There are less decisions to make.
“The league is being bold, trying to improve, starting to give us the tools to take risks to compete internationally. That's a good thing. But the stakes are higher.”