Commentary

Bill Manning on building a winning tradition in Toronto, what he learned about player development at RSL and the way forward for U.S. Soccer

Massapequa (N.Y.) native Bill Manning, 50, got his start in pro soccer as a player and then as an executive with lower-division teams like the New York Fever and Long Island Rough Riders and with the Brooklyn Italians, who played in the old Concacaf Champions Cup.

After an MLS stint with defunct Tampa Bay, he worked in the NFL for the Philadelphia Eagles before returning to soccer as president of Real Salt Lake in 2008.

In October 2015, the two-time MLS Executive of the Year became president of TFC and has since helped head coach Greg Vanney and general manager Tim Bezbatchenkoform one of the league’s elite teams, on and off the field. In 2017, TFC set a league record for points in a season and captured both the Canadian Championship and MLS Cup.


 
SOCCER AMERICA: When you arrived in Toronto, TFC qualified for the playoffs for the first time, but still it wore eight previous years [2007-14] of failure. It is a much bigger operation than RSL. What was the mood of the front office and the rest of the organization when you arrived?

BILL MANNING: It was very good. I’ve experienced moving to different places in my career so I took the philosophy we had built at RSL over the years, and when I looked at TFC over the years, I saw a club in constant confusion. They were going through coaches, players, and general managers left and right.

When I was looking at different opportunities my dad said to me, ‘You know, that Toronto team, they can only go up.’ That’s a pretty good situation to put yourself in. That’s experience. As you get older you also get wiser. Well, that’s what I like to think.

I felt they had a pretty good group here with Greg and I knew [assistant coach] Robin Fraser, obviously, from my days at RSL and I knew Tim Bez a little bit from MLS. We had all the resources in the world and I just thought they needed a little stability, frankly. When you look at what we did at RSL all those years we built a core of players and a front-office that was in sync [with] the team side and the business side and the stadium side, and it worked there.

We took that philosophy to a much bigger market and a much bigger team and it worked. For us, we continue to look forward and we want to be what the L.A. Galaxy were in their prime years. Can we take that and even better it? That’s kind of our ambition.
 
SA: The Galaxy always gets criticized as the team most favored by the league office, but it has gone through a few rough times and had to rebuild.

BILL MANNING: The one thing you can never take away is they won championships. When I was at Salt Lake, they won it in ’11 and ’12 and again in ’14. They beat us in 2011 when we had a very good team at RSL and that was a very good L.A. team that year.

We look at those teams – Greg and Tim and I – and think how can we have that level of success for that many years and build upon it. Having Bruce [Arena] for that many years brought stability on the coaching side, which I think is critical. Teams are too quick sometimes to unload their coaches. We gave Greg time to grow and I think it’s been a wise decision by us. That continuity is so important.
 
SA: How did you handle the transition itself? Was there a lot of nervousness that hiring you was just the start of a major shakeup?

BILL MANNING: Normally, the first six months you’re getting a good gauge for the organization, the community, who’s in your corner, who’s not in your corner. One of the first things I try to do is meet individually with every staff member, and then you meet the leaders in the community and in the soccer community, whether it’s youth soccer or amateur soccer.

I’ve had the opportunity to sit down with my counterparts at the Raptors and Maple Leafs, and with the sponsors and community leaders and you just get a feel for where TFC is.

We wanted people to have a voice and wanted them to be a part of us. I spent part of that six months working with the staff to build trust within the organization. It’s so easy to clean house and get rid of everyone and that’s the last thing I wanted to do. I felt Toronto FC needed stability. I started to work with Greg and Tim and the people on the business side and it began to click.
 
SA: When Vanney replaced Ryan Nelsen, it was seen by some as a stopgap measure that would buy time until Tim Leiweke, then in charge of TFC, could hire a big-name head coach. Instead, Vanney – who did have experience as an assistant coach with Chivas USA – has emerged as one of the top coaches in the league.

BILL MANNING: Greg would be the first one to say he’s grown tremendously in the job. But I remember speaking to him about it and I said, ‘Don’t look back over your shoulder, don’t worry about that. We want you to succeed. Focus on coaching. Let’s build a core of players and let’s keep consistency in our lineup.’

We had to go out there and earn respect and we did that. In the last two years, some of his tactical acumen came out because he has the confidence to do some things and he knows if he loses three games in a row he’s not going to get thrown under the bus. He’s proven to be a very strong, young coach in this league and I think his name should start popping up a future national-team coach. He’s just scratching the surface now. His soccer I.Q. is very, very high.

We have the resources and we’ve spent money to get the players we have gotten, but over the years teams have done that and failed. It’s a benefit we don’t shy away from, but you still have to make it work and Greg has done a really good job of making it work.


 
SA: How has the relationship between the team and the fan base changed?

BILL MANNING: With all the failure on the field, there was almost an abrasive attitude toward the franchise. So I tried to repair some of those bridges and build new ones. We want people cheering for us, from the community, from the soccer community, former players like DeRo [Dwayne De Rosario].

When I got here, a guy I played with on the Brooklyn Italians, Ferdi De Matthaeis, shot me a note and said you have to look up my friend Bob Iarusci. Ferdie and Bob had played together on the Cosmos. Bob also played for Toronto and was living here. He’s chairman of one of the soccer clubs and very well respected.

So I invited him out to lunch at our training center. We have a beautiful training facility and a great work environment. He mentioned to me that he’d never been here before. I asked him why and he said, ‘I’ve never been invited.’ There was this fence around TFC, that they were isolated and wanted to things their own way, and they had created a lot of negative vibes in the community.
 
SA: It seems a lot of teams took a long time to reconnect with their predecessors in the old NASL and the other leagues.

BILL MANNING: It’s team by team. When I was down in Tampa, we were able to recognize the 25th anniversary of the [1975] Rowdies championship. We had a great function and a nice evening. Then last year was the 40th  anniversary of the Toronto Metros-Croatia [1976] NASL championship.

With Bob, we were able to bring together a number of players who were still in Toronto and a couple of guys even flew over from Croatia, and some other people who were involved with that team, and we had a beautiful ceremony the night before one of our games.
 
SA: The NASL had folded by the time you got out of college. What has talking with former players and executives from those days broadened your knowledge of the game in North America?

BILL MANNING:  You realize some of the differences. Back then, their first game was in mid-April and the championship game was Aug. 28. The season was about four months, very different from what we have now. But they were the pioneers, and it was a great opportunity for the players to be recognized but also for them to know we wanted them to be a part of TFC.

After we won the championship I got a great note from Carmine Marcantonio, who was also on that team and lives in Toronto, telling us he couldn’t be more proud of what we’ve done here in Toronto and thanking us for recognizing the 1976 team. I just think it’s little things like that and too often some MLS executives have almost isolated their franchises as opposed to making people feel inclusive and part of it.

I want to meet these guys and show them the training facility and hear their thoughts and ideas. Doesn’t mean I’m going to listen to everyone’s advice but I want them to be able to call me up and say, ‘Hey Bill, can you get me tickets for this game?’ The answer is always yes.
 
SA: After reaching and losing the 2016 MLS Cup final, you didn’t hesitate to make a few significant changes to the roster. It turned out great but wasn’t it a risk to tweak a pretty good team?

BILL MANNING: At the end of the day, I believe winning is the No. 1 priority and if you win on the field, the ticket sales and the sponsorships and the merchandise will follow suit. It’s a model we used in Salt Lake under [former owner] Dave Checketts and it’s the model they’ve given me to run with. My two priorities are win first and make the budget second.

Once Greg and Tim and everybody else realized we weren’t going to clean house, they could focus on finishing this project and we were closely aligned, very similar to how Jason [Kreis] and Garth [Lagerwey] and I were in Salt Lake.

SA: RSL has an excellent record of developing players, and Vanney used to be in charge of its academy in Arizona. How have you adapted the RSL model?

BILL MANNING: I always joke that when the Toronto Blue Jays play, nobody is screaming about seeing young Canadian players. At TFC, we hear those voices every now again about how we don’t play enough Canadian players. You don’t ever hear that in any of the other sports. But for the most part, soccer fans want to see the best product.

You see the players at RSL, they are the fruits of our labor, Jason and Garth and I, with RSL-Arizona. We had Brooks Lennon, we had Justen Glad, we had Bofo [Sebastian] Saucedo. I remember Martin Vazquez telling us about Danny Acosta and we went down to see him live and said, ‘Wow, this kid can play.’

You’re talking five, six years that you’re developing these players, playing them in the [Generation Adidas] and the Dallas Cup and all these competitions until they finally graduate into the first team. I think the last three years is the tip of the iceberg for these young Americans, and with Vancouver and Montreal and TFC the Canadian teams are following suit.
 
SA: As one of three MLS Canadian teams, TFC and its academy obviously play a very important role in the success of the national team. How do you see that process playing out during the next few years?

BILL MANNING: I think the onus is on us to develop more Homegrown Players. We’re making substantial investments in that, all of us are. What our fan base tells us is that, if all is even, they would love for us to have a young Canadian player on the roster. But if he’s not as good as the international guy you can get in, they’d rather see the international player. They want to see the best soccer possible.

As for the Canadian national team, I was disappointed about Octavio [Zambrano]. I thought he was really going to help that national team program win. He brought a level of respect and understanding about the international game. We were a little disappointed because we had begun to build some bridges that had not been there under [predecessor] Benito Floro.

I hope we can build a relationship with the new coach. We just had seven players called into a U-23 camp. We are going to be a big feeder for the national-team programs here in Canada and I think we should have a big voice in the future of Canadian soccer.  We have to get behind John Herdman now and help him build the program that they need.   
 
SA: How is the academy changing and when do you think people will take notice of the players that are coming through?

BILL MANNING: For the first time, we’re going to have a full-time scout to find players here in the Toronto area, which is about 7 million people, who are 13 and younger. He’s going to break bread with all the coaching directors. A lot of how we identify younger players is through a network and people you know and so on.

We’re going to scout the games and get to know the families of these players so hopefully we can get them into our academy system. Most of the MLS teams have made big investments into the academy system, and I think the next step for the academy system is to reach out more. Now with the 1999 age group you’re starting to see players who have been developed through the MLS academies and some day could play in one of the top four or five leagues in the world. They’re still young, they’re 18 years old, but you can see the potential there.

A strong Canadian national team program is going to be good for Toronto FC, and a strong TFC first team and academy program will be good for the national team. It would be great if the men’s team can raise its profile and be a serious competitor to the U.S., like the women’s team is. The Canadian women’s team has challenged the U.S. team many times and played well against them.
 
SA: In the aftermath of the U.S. failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and a U.S. Soccer presidential election looming, what do you see as the major issues to be resolved?

BILL MANNING: I don’t think U.S. Soccer is broken. It’s come a long way. Of course, we can get better. When you miss World Cup qualification you have to take a look at yourself and where you can be better, and I think the governing body can be better synchronized with the MLS clubs. There has to be a better identification process of the youth players along with the adult players.

You had a cycle there where the coach and the players weren’t in sync and it cost us qualification. Holland and Cameroon have to look at the same thing. They are also countries that have qualified many, many times.

For the longer-term approach, how are we going to develop those players? You have to be in sync with youth development in this country through not only the MLS academies but the rest of the programs as well. There’s different paths. We need to be smarter and make it more economically affordable for any demographic to play the game.

I’ve seen it too often with the ODP program; you price families out. We have to go back to making it affordable for our best players. Hopefully, we get someone who can bring the various groups together so instead of hating each other they’re rooting for each other. We can’t have people hoping the national team fails because they don’t like whoever is running the program.         
2 comments about "Bill Manning on building a winning tradition in Toronto, what he learned about player development at RSL and the way forward for U.S. Soccer".
  1. John Soares, January 30, 2018 at 2:11 p.m.

    I think the last question and answer are spot on.
    Perhaps someone could hang in the new presidents office.

  2. frank schoon, January 31, 2018 at 9:45 a.m.

    I think the difference between Holland and the US in not going to the world cup can be seen in that the former, Holland, the quality of their game has gone down as was predicted by Johan Cruyff in the mid '90's for he didn't like the way the players were being trained and developed. And in case of the latter ,the US, the other countries are improving and the US player development hasn't gone anywhere in the past 50 years...

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