ORLANDO – Everyone in North American soccer has an origin story.
No matter if you’re in your first year supporting a club or if you’re a champion head coach who’s roamed the sidelines for 20 years, everyone can name a game, a tournament, a star or a team that grabbed them. Everyone can remember the moment they decided they never wanted to let go.
For Tim Bezbatchenko, one of the biggest chapters in his own soccer origin story came back in 1996, when, as a teenager growing up in Ohio, he and his family became Columbus Crew SC season ticket holders. Bezbatchenko would head to Ohio Stadium to watch Brian McBride and Brad Friedel do their thing in the league’s inaugural season, cementing his fandom and setting the stage for a career in the game.
More than two decades later, he’s coming home to Columbus. The 37-year-old left his plum job as Toronto FC GM to become Crew president late last week. He was introduced with new head coach Caleb Porter and new owners Dr. Pete Edwards and Dee and Jimmy Haslam on Wednesday. If they have their way, Columbus will become more than the origin story for a new generation of soccer fans in Ohio – they’ll be a full-fledged member of the MLS elite.
“This opportunity in Columbus was just something different,” Bezbatchenko told MLSsoccer.com from the 2019 MLS adidas Player Combine in Orlando over the weekend. “It’s a chance to go home. It’s a chance with this new era, with this new ownership to create a new identity for the club and build it into something that can be great.”
Bezbatchenko arrives in Columbus with the Crew at a massive inflection point. The #SaveTheCrew movement succeeded this winter, culminating with Edwards and the Haslams buying the club from Anthony Precourt to prevent it from moving to Austin. Their arrival has brought some much-needed positivity. Hiring Bezbatchenko was a coup; beating out the LA Galaxy to sign Porter was a statement. Plans for a new downtown stadium and state-of-the-art training facility raise the ceiling on what the Crew can be.
After 15 months of angst, fear and frustration, there’s new hope in Columbus. The Crew are there to stay, and, with the positive momentum of #SaveTheCrew and new ownership behind them, Bezbatchenko feels like the organization can continue writing their redemption story. He believes the Crew can pull off a turnaround reminiscent of Sporting Kansas City’s within the past decade. He thinks they can go from an afterthought to a force in Columbus; from a team that’s punched above their weight to one that can legitimately run with the league’s big timers.
“There’s an ability to do something that’s miraculous with a fanbase that wasn’t up there with the top half of the league before, from what I’ve seen,” he said. “No one knows how a new team’s going to reinvent the wheel. No one really saw Kansas City coming, and all of a sudden, they flipped that. No one really saw Seattle and Portland, and they did it in their own way. And then I think Toronto, we got Designated Players in their prime from top teams around the world, no one had done that. Atlanta goes and gets younger players and they build out a stadium and they’re doing it the way they’re doing it.
“I think that’s sort of a what’s happening here at the present moment. That excites people, but for us it’s an opportunity to do something different. And I think the genesis is going to be in this Save the Crew movement and the fans and the community. I really think that the unique or special part of this club will be coming from how we can use the expertise of this ownership group and the commitment from them and their desire to win and then utilize the community to be something different. If we can do that, I think it’ll be an example. Every city and club have to do it their own way, but it’d certainly be an example of how you can galvanize a community and a city to back a soccer team.”
That kind of talk will no doubt excite Columbus fans. There is, however, a lot of work to do to get to that point. Most of it will start with Bezbatchenko. One of the fastest rising executives in MLS history, he had an excellent five-and-a-half-year tenure in Toronto, helping turn TFC from a laughingstock into one of the top teams in the league. Most of his experience in Toronto, as well as his entire three-year stint in the league office that preceded it, came on the sporting side. He’ll remain in charge of soccer operations in Columbus, but he’ll also be leading business efforts for the Crew. There will be a learning curve, though Bezbatchenko is confident that his time in Toronto – where he first worked under Tim Leiweke and then Bill Manning, two of the most accomplished execs in the league – adequately prepared him for those responsibilities.
He’ll start small. Before he left Florida for Columbus on Tuesday night, Bezbatchenko still hadn’t met an overwhelming majority of Crew employees. He doesn’t know much about the people he’ll be working with on the business side of the club, though he praised the several he’d spoken to on the phone in recent days for the “bravery, courage and loyalty” he thought they showed during the Crew’s turbulent 2018. Once he gets acclimated, his biggest priorities will be filling out the club’s staff, familiarizing himself with the Columbus business community and leading the charge in construction of the new stadium and training center.
He’s a bit more familiar with his colleagues on the sporting side. Though he didn’t hire Porter, who was interviewing for the Crew head coaching job at the same time Bezbatchenko was talking with the club about the president position, he expressed a great deal of confidence in the former Timbers head coach.
He’ll also likely make a hire – likely a technical director type – to help him in building the roster. Former Crew SC goalkeeper coach Pat Onstad was named interim GM following the departure of former Columbus coach and sporting director Gregg Berhalter to the US national team last month. Bezbatchenko and Onstad overlapped in Toronto for a couple of months late in 2013 after Bezbatchenko was hired and before Onstad, who was then serving as TFC’s chief scout, left for Columbus. Bezbatchenko spoke highly of Onstad in Orlando, and said he’d like to chat with the longtime former MLS ‘keeper to see what he wants for his future. If he’s looking to stay in the front office, it appears as if Onstad will be a strong candidate to continue shaping what Columbus look like on the field.
He won’t short shrift his business responsibilities, but Bezbatchenko made clear that the soccer product will drive things for Columbus. He feels that Toronto showed during his time in Ontario that if things are good on the field, the business will, at least in some ways, take care of itself. He likes the club’s current roster and is confident that Porter will get plenty out of it, even if he didn’t expect to make a major addition this winter while he acquaints himself with Crew SC’s scouting network and roster needs.
“I think first it’s the identity of the club and working with Caleb on our soccer,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s about the game. That’s really important for me.”
Once he does get comfortable, expect some fireworks. Executives like Bezbatchenko don’t leave jobs like the TFC GM position without assurances that they’ll have resources available in their new gig. Columbus are serious now, and Bezbatchenko is serious about turning them into an MLS power. If things go well, his hiring might just become one of those indelible moments in league history, a key chapter in the story of Columbus Crew SC.