Toronto FC president Bill Manning and his son, Willie. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
SEATTLE — A Bill Manning team has been there and done it before at CenturyLink Field and he certainly wouldn’t mind seeing history repeat itself again Sunday.
Again would be winning MLS Cup.
True, the Massapequa, N.Y. native has never played in the league, but he has run a few Major League Soccer clubs. And quite successfully, most recently as Toronto FC president.
When Manning was in a similar role with Real Salt Lake in 2009, that team claimed the MLS Cup on the very same field where his Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders FC will tussle for Major League Soccer glory Sunday at 3 p.m. ET.
Toronto FC reached the finals playing Seattle in 2016 and 2017, winning the latter.
Manning, 54, has learned some lessons along the way. His first championship was the 1999 A-League crown when he was president and general manager of the Minnesota Thunder.
“My expectation has always been to win and be a champion,” he said.
Of course, that is virtually impossible to do.
“What I think what got lost on me a little bit was when I won it in 2009, I thought we had a group of players who could win more,” Manning said. “We went to it in 2013 and lost and it took me until 2017 to win it again. So now in 2019 I’m so more appreciative being in this spot because I know how hard it is and how much work it takes to be in this spot. In 2009, I was almost naive I expected to be there and win.”
When Manning joined Toronto FC near the end of 2015, the team already had put together the start of a successful run. The team had signed U.S. national team captain Michael Bradley. Greg Vanney had a year under his belt as coach.
“What I found was a group that already started to build a foundation,” Manning said. “You had Michael Bradley who in terms of leadership is the kind of guy on the field who can bring you to real highs. I thought Greg at that point was a good young coach who just needed some time to evolve. He is a student of the game, knows the game really well. We had a young general manager who was ambitious in Tim Bezbatchenko.
“What they needed, if there was anything, I helped bring was some experience on having won and knowing the things that needed to be done to win. So, really it was aligning everyone in the same direction. That was to win because when you win you sell more tickets; you sell more sponsorships. All of the business things are in place. That was the key thing that we really did. We learned to breakdown bridges.”
Toronto FC is owned by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the largest sports and entertainment company in Canada that also operates the Toronto Maple Leafs (National Hockey League), Toronto Raptors (National Basketball Association) and Toronto Argonauts (Canadian Football League).
“TFC was its own silo and we broke down the silos,” Manning said. “We got a company of 800 people and braced our soccer team. It became special and we built a culture there now where we expect to win. And, we enjoy ourselves when we’re doing it.”
A good executive — sports or business — knows when to get out of the way and/or give other people credit. Management allowed Vanney to do his job, bringing in game-changers such as Sebastian Giovinco — aka the Atomic Ant — and more recently Alejandro Pozuelo.
Manning was impressed with Vanney’s soccer IQ.
“I’ve been around soccer a long time and it’s as high as anyone I’ve been around,” he said. It’s an extremely high soccer IQ. He can get into the intricacies of the game and it’s really fascinating when you get a chance to talk to him. High character, which for me is really important. He understands the off-field issues as well as the on-field issues and how they come into play in helping your team win.
“He’s not a guy, ‘I’m just going to coach and you guys worry about everything else. He actually wants to understand it and be part of it. For me, that was critical. He’s a fierce competitor. He was as a player. If you remember he was a fierce competitor. To me, the leader of your team is the head coach. It’s not me or the GM, it’s the head coach. To have a guy who has what it takes to fight, rubs off on the team. And I felt he had that.”
While he never played in MLS, Manning knows something about soccer. He was an All-American at the University of Bridgeport and performed at the semi-pro level for the likes of the Brooklyn Italians and the USL before the rise of professional soccer and MLS. He was a member of the Italians’ side that captured the 1991 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.
That side was loaded with talent. Manning rattled off some names Junior Superbia, Ernest Inneh, Osidis Machado, Ronan Wiseman and Dragan Radovich, among others. When Toronto FC met New York City FC at Citi Field for the Eastern Conference semifinal, Superbia contacted Manning (when Manning was with RSL, he brought a team to scrimmage against the Italians), who invited his former teammate and family to watch the playoff match.
“We had that group of players from ’89 to ’91 was such a great group of guys,” he said. “Different people will text me or shoot me emails throughout the years and I really enjoyed staying in touch with those guys. We won a lot. I think that was the best team in America during that time period, about a three-year run that would could go toe to toe with any team in the country. We never lost a game on the Brooklyn College turf in my three years there.”
As it turns out, Toronto FC has been one of the best teams the past three years, although 2018 turned out to be a nightmare season as the team missed the playoffs.
And as it turns out, Toronto FC and Seattle are facing each other in the MLS Cup final for the third time in four years. Manning and Sounders president Garth Lagerwey have a unique bond that goes back to the 2009 final when both worked for RSL. Lagerwey was senior vice president and GM there before joining Seattle in 2015.
“Garth and I were both talking about that,” Manning said at CenturyLink Field Saturday. “Ten years ago, we won MLS Cup in this building. … It’s funny. Garth and I, it’s our fifth in 11 years because he was there in ’09, he was there with me in ’13, and then we played against each other in ’16 and ’17.”
Manning is confident about Toronto FC, but he knew that the Sounders are a formidable side.
“You have special players on each team,” he said, “You have [Nicolas] Loderio, [Raul] Ruidiaz, a heck of a player, Stefan Frei in goal, Jordan Morris.
“On our team you have Michael, you have Jozy [Altidore], Pozuelo comes in. He’s a big player. Unsung players Jonathan Osorio, Marky Delgado. Those guys have been with us through this run.
“Both teams are very similar. Garth and I have been joking about this. This is a team of veterans that know how to win. What Iv’e really learned is that at the end of the day you need guys who know what it takes to win, guys who have been there before. You can sprinkle in some young guys, but it’s very, very important to have a group that knows what it takes. What’s interesting about both these groups, they’ve been there and done it before.”
Another thing Manning has learned through the years?
“Look, I never make predictions,” he said. “I hope we’re going to win. I expect that we can win. But it’s a battle. There are a few good omens going on for me and a few going on for Garth as well. Look, it would be great to go up two to one on these guys in this trilogy. I joked with [Sounders FC majority owner] Adrian Hanauer: ‘I hope we can do it again next year, but I’d like to host rather than you.’ “