Editor’s note: The following story originally ran on Oct. 20, two days before Toronto FC broke the record for most points in an MLS regular season. Ahead of Saturday’s MLS Cup final (4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas, TSN) between Toronto and the Seattle Sounders, it has been updated and re-published.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the greatest team in Major League Soccer history began to take shape. Does it start with ownership’s investment? With a CEO’s vision? With the arrival of a 31-year-old general manager, or a 40-year-old coach, or three mid-20s superstars?
It’s a difficult question even for the man who’s constructed it, that savvy GM plucked from the league office in 2013. The one who wrote a law school paper on MLS’s single-entity structure. He initially wavers when asked, but then arrives at an answer.
“The acquisition of Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe [in 2014], that was the turning point for the club,” says Tim Bezbatchenko, now 36, over the phone on an afternoon drive through Toronto. Those two players, he says, signaled “a new level of ambition.” Bradley “has been a foundation from which we’ve built.”
Some old-timers, of course, would argue that MLS’s greatest team was actually born two decades ago. (Bezbatchenko wouldn’t quarrel with them; he doesn’t care either way.) The 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy still hold the best-ever record (22-4-6). But current Toronto manager Greg Vanney played on that Galaxy team, and if he had to pick between the two?
“When we ran into opposition that was organized and difficult to break down [in ‘98], our free-flowing nature got the best of us,” he said back in August. “What’s different about [this team] is we have better balance … We’re more organized and have a better collective idea on both sides of the ball what we’re trying to do. Our roster is deeper.”
Vanney was hired in 2014, with TFC sliding toward its eighth consecutive playoff miss – in its eighth season of existence. Two years earlier, one of its players had called it “the worst team in the world.” Vanney has led the ascent, from perennial loser to postseason team in 2015, then MLS Cup finalist in 2016, and now this. Runaway Supporters’ Shield victors. A league-record 69 points. A second-straight MLS Cup appearance.
The format of MLS is such that playoff narratives ultimately overshadow regular season ones, but Toronto’s dominance has been more comprehensive than any team’s in league history. Whether it ends with red confetti and a trophy ceremony at BMO Field or with more disappointment, it should always be remembered.
But Vanney, the touchline chief, and Bradley, the foundational piece, are only two parts of a story that has many. It transcends Bezbatchenko too. But he represents a convenient place to start.
Because the situation he took over in September of 2013, in his own words, “was worse than an expansion team.” He makes that point again now. “You have to remember where we came from,” he says. “I mean, [the club] was really a laughingstock.”
The club, however, had a vision. It had an ownership group willing to spend. And that ownership group had a CEO – former L.A. Galaxy architect Tim Leiweke – who knew how to construct a winner. Leiweke brought in Bezbatchenko, and the two, along with others, settled on a pricey Designated Player model. The construction project began with Bradley, Defoe and Gilberto in 2014, then Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco the following offseason. Toronto has employed the league’s most expensive squad four years in a row, and in the fourth, it has the league’s greatest team ever.
Oh, but it’s not that simple. Far from it.
“Even though you’ve set the vision and ambition, it doesn’t mean you’re going to accomplish it,” Bezbatchenko says. “A lot of teams are ambitious and they accomplish nothing.
“The money accelerates it, but it is absolutely no substitute for the due diligence, and the people you put in place to execute a plan. The creativity, the innovation, and the ability to use the rules in your favor, that is the plan. The going out and getting the big designated players, that’s one step in the plan. And you can substitute that for a lot of other things, but you can never substitute the ability to put a team together, making sure that the team fights for each other, the chemistry, and having a coach that has a tactical wherewithal to execute on the plan.”
He continues: “I do think having three designated players is a formula for success, but you have to get it right. It has to be part of a greater plan, because you have to get the pieces around them.”
Those pieces come in many shapes and sizes. They’re defenders, midfielders and forwards. They’re a manager with an extensive background leading development academies, and an experienced staff. They’re a sports science department, a massage therapist and acupuncturist, and a “director of cognitive development.” They’re a manager of analytics, Devin Pleuler, who the club hired away from prominent data company Opta.
You have to get your DP signings right, of course, and TFC has. Giovinco is arguably the best player the league has ever seen. Bradley and Altidore, despite the latter’s injury issues, have been resounding successes. The front two have combined for 91 goals and 48 assists since arriving together in 2015.
But Toronto has also conceded the second-fewest goals in MLS each of the past two seasons, after conceding the joint-most the year before. Vanney introduced a stifling 3-5-2 late last season, then beefed it up with defender Chris Mavinga, and accentuated its potency with creative midfielder Victor Vazquez this past winter.
The supplementary players, and all the men and women behind the scenes, are crucial parts of the Designated Player model as well. “You actually have to go through this evolution as a club,” Bezbatchenko explains. “There’s a lot of resources you have to put into not only acquiring designated players, but also setting up an environment for them to be successful.”
That environment extends from the training pitch to the training room, from daily schedules to cafeteria diets. “We have three players that have played at a high level in Europe,” Bezbatchenko continues. “And there’s a different mentality, or an approach toward everyday life, when you’re a professional athlete in Europe than what I had seen in Major League Soccer.”
Whatever the club has done in that regard has worked for Giovinco. The diminutive striker, originally signed from Juventus, recently told Italian media that Toronto could finish mid-table in Serie A. And it’s tough to dispute that.
The question within MLS now becomes whether the TFC model is replicable. Is the league’s greatest team an exception? Or an example for others to follow?
Bezbatchenko ponders it as he cruises on a Thursday afternoon. “I don’t think you can replicate anything exactly. … Because soccer reflects the culture of a community and a city.” There’s also TFC’s financial backing, which has been unrivaled in recent years.
“But there are factors that lend themselves to success in MLS,” Bezbatchenko says. “Certainly those things are replicable. There’s an acquisition model now, where people are starting to bring in designated players in their prime, and building around those designated players – through your academy, through drafting, and the other mechanisms in the league. That’s replicable.” He mentions Atlanta as evidence.
“So I do think there are certain attributes that should be looked at, that should be experimented with. It’s certainly not [the case that] this can never be done again.”
But that doesn’t mean it will be done again anytime soon. A lot of time, money and people have enabled the 69 points and back-to-back Eastern Conference titles. Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Toronto’s 2017 will be difficult to match.
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