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  Rowdies championship. We had a great function and a nice evening. Then last year was the 40th anniversary of the Toronto Metros-Croatia  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.