TORONTO – With Toronto FC’s assault on the MLS record books well under way and the allure of an MLS Cup beckoning, club general manager Tim Bezbatchenko took a moment on Wednesday to sit down with MLSsoccer.com for a chat on his balcony overlooking the club’s training ground north of the city.
The question on everyone's lips: Are Toronto FC the "greatest ever" side in MLS?
“It's fun for fans and the league to talk about,” said Bezbatchenko. “We're focused on improving. For us it's about winning the Supporters’ Shield because that guarantees a bye in the first round; puts you in a position to make a deep run into the playoffs.
“It's symbolic of the approach this team has taken. They don't take a day off; don't take a game off. Whether at BMO Field or on the road, they treat every game as three points. That's all you can ask.
“Chasing history is a 'nice' to have, not a 'must' have. It's not why we come to work every day.”
Toronto enter the final weeks of the season on top of both the league and the Eastern Conference. Most points, most wins and best goal-differential in MLS history are just some of the records within reach. But the nightmare scenario achieving all that and not hoisting the MLS Cup, especially given the loss to Seattle after penalties at home in the 2016 final, looms large in conversations about the team.
“Does [not winning MLS Cup] diminish the regular season? I don't think so,” he said. “They're two independent things. The regular season stands alone, positions you for the playoffs. Anywhere else around the world that would [determine] the champion. In MLS it's about the playoffs. We understand that; we want MLS Cup. We're capable of winning.
“Once you reach the playoffs, the best team doesn't always win those games, as we saw in the [2016 MLS Cup] finals and in MLS along the way. It takes some luck, takes some calls. The playoffs are not set up so that the best team necessarily wins.
“I don't think we'll be satisfied if we don't [win]. This team is hungry. Until we get that Cup and fill that trophy case we're going to keep pushing and trying to improve.”
As noted during the playoffs last season, the players’ lounge at TFC’s training facility has three trophy cases along one wall, with spots for the Voyageurs Cup, awarded to the winners of the Canadian Championship, the MLS Cup and the CONCACAF Champions League. The first one is occupied. The other two are not.
Toronto are favorites to fill the second this season, but the third... well, that would make further tilt the scales in TFC's direction in conversations of the 'greatest ever teams' in MLS.
“That would be one factor that fans and media would use to placate the narratives,” said Bezbatchenko. “We're motivated to get to the [FIFA] Club World Cup because no team has done it. It would be a testament to the talent and the creation of this team; to Greg [Vanney]'s work and the players work.
“We would love to get [there], but it's so far down the road. We have to take it chronologically. Win the Supporters’ Shield and lock in first place, make a deep run and put ourselves into position to host the Cup again. If we get there, let's win the Cup. And then we can start focusing on the Champions League.”
That such lofty aims can even be discussed in polite company is a measure of how far the club has come under the tenure of Bezbatchenko, who joined the team in September 2013.
Fast approaching his fourth anniversary in Toronto, the GM reflected on the defining moments of a journey that has taken TFC from a club that did not qualify for the postseason in their first eight years to one hoping for a second-straight appearance at MLS Cup.
“It's tough to point to one moment,” admitted Bezbatchenko. “There were a number we knew it was going to happen, but beating Montreal, in an epic game, against a rival [in 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs], and securing a place to host MLS Cup.... Looking back, 20 years from now, that will be the moment.
“In terms of knowing this team was capable, securing the playoff place against the [New York] Red Bulls in 2015 [was] a turning point. We could start looking forward, planning two-to-three years down the road, because the monkey was off the club's back. Moments that catapulted us allowed us to be free to express who we are as a club and not looking back over our shoulders at what the pundits or the negativos have to say.”