Crew season preview: President Tim Bezbatchenko and Head Coach Caleb Porter lead a new-look front office
On the night of May 15, 1999, Tim Bezbatchenko was late to his junior prom due to a scheduling conflict.
For three years, the Westerville native had been attending Columbus Crew games, first tagging along with his parents and then carpooling to Ohio Stadium with his St. Francis DeSales soccer teammates. After years playing high-level youth soccer with no top-tier American pro league to look up to, “I remember feeling how fortunate I was to now have this,” he said.
Now, the Crew was opening the first soccer-specific stadium in Major League Soccer, and there was no way Bezbatchenko was going to miss it. So he dragged his date to Columbus Crew Stadium — these days known as Mapfre Stadium — and lingered long enough to watch Jeff Cunningham christen it with a 10th-minute goal against the New England Revolution.
“I came in my tuxedo, and she was in her dress,” Bezbatchenko remembered. “We showed up a little bit late to prom, but it was well worth it.”
Bezbatchenko, 37, has many such memories from the Crew’s early years. In the two decades since he left for college, his parents have continued to be season ticket holders; they’re the sort of super fans who’ve shared pregame beers with Frankie Hejduk at tailgate parties, and who were reluctant to wear red when their son was working for rival Toronto FC. So when Bezbatchenko was hired as the Crew’s president in January, it was a true homecoming.
Such a move seemed unlikely just a few months ago. Bezbatchenko’s path had taken him from midfielder (for University of Richmond and the minor-league Pittsburgh Riverhounds) to MLS home office wunderkind (overseeing contracts, loans and transfer agreements, plus a number of improvements to the youth academy system) to a wildly successful run as Toronto FC’s general manager.
Toronto hired Bezbatchenko in 2013, just before his 32nd birthday. Working under championship-winning execs Tim Leiweke and Bill Manning and rubbing elbows with his elite counterparts from the Raptors and Maple Leafs, he was impressed with the Toronto organization. He was also impressive there, building one of the best teams in MLS history en route to a 2017 MLS Cup victory. His family was happy in Toronto, too. If he was going to leave, “It was just going to have to be something unique.”
Furthermore, he wasn’t sure if the Crew would still be here this year. For a while he wasn’t even sure the Crew should be here. In late 2017, when investor-operator Anthony Precourt announced he was exploring moving the team to Austin, Bezbatchenko deemed it a painful but inevitable response to tepid local backing. While other midsize markets such as Kansas City and Portland thrived, Columbus had long languished near the bottom of the attendance table. “From the outside looking in the past 20 years, there was some doubt of whether or not the team was actually supported,” he said.
Save the Crew changed that perception. The fervent grassroots movement that sprung up in response to Precourt answered Bezbatchenko’s chicken-egg question about whether the organization or the fans were driving local apathy. “What the Save the Crew movement taught me is that it’s not necessarily from the fans,” he said.
Bezbatchenko wasn’t the only one convinced by Save the Crew’s passion. Cleveland Browns owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam saw an opportunity in Columbus, too. So after months of hustle by the city’s public and private sectors, and some complicated wrangling by MLS execs, the Haslams joined forces with the locally based Edwards family — led by longtime Crew team doctor Pete Edwards Jr. — to take over control of the Crew on Jan. 1. (Precourt’s MLS operating rights have transferred to Austin, where he’ll launch Austin FC in 2021.)
In early December, while still finalizing a deal to operate the Crew, the new brain trust reached out to Bezbatchenko. Gregg Berhalter, who coached Columbus and oversaw its player personnel for five seasons, had departed to lead the U.S. men’s national team. The new regime was looking to split up Berhalter’s responsibilities. Who better to take over the off-field operations, they reasoned, than a local product who’d built one of the Crew’s fiercest rivals into a powerhouse?
“There’s very few executives in MLS that are more respected than Tim, so to be able to lure him back here from a major market environment to Columbus was a huge coup for us,” Edwards told reporters at a Jan. 9 event introducing the Crew’s new leadership.
Bezbatchenko had signed his contract with the Crew just five days earlier. He said his decision was based on many factors. He was intrigued by the chance to return home, to build on Save the Crew’s momentum, to oversee not just player personnel but business operations, too — including the construction of a new Downtown stadium. He also appreciated the new Columbus investor-operators’ passion, vision and values. And he was more than a little curious to see what Berhalter’s roster could accomplish under the leadership of new Head Coach Caleb Porter.
Porter, 44, has his own history with the Crew. When MLS launched in 1996, he was playing college soccer at Indiana University after growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Proximity made Columbus “the first team I admired and followed,” he said. It helped that former IU teammates Brian Maisonneuve, Mike Clark and Todd Yeagley were original Crew players. Porter’s own MLS playing career was limited to three seasons due to knee injuries, so by 2000 he was back at IU as an assistant coach. He remained there until becoming head coach at Akron in 2006, at which point his career went supernova.
Akron became a dynasty under Porter. The Zips won the MAC regular season championship in all seven of his years with the program, and five times won the conference tournament. His 2009 team went undefeated until losing on penalties in the NCAA championship game. The following year Akron returned to the championship game and won — the school’s first national title in any sport. A number of future MLS and U.S. national team stars populated those teams, including Crew captain and hometown hero Wil Trapp.
Porter said he got 15 job offers during his tenure at Akron. In late 2012, he finally accepted one, jumping to MLS to coach the Portland Timbers. Three years later he led Portland to an MLS Cup championship, which Columbus supporters remember excruciatingly well: The victory happened at Mapfre against the Crew.
It was one of many fond memories at Mapfre for Porter. When he was an assistant at Indiana in 2003, the Hoosiers won an NCAA title there. During his tenure in Akron, Porter often drove to Columbus to observe the Crew and learn from the late Sigi Schmid, who coached the Crew to its only MLS Cup title in 2008. He also attended several of the U.S. team’s “Dos A Cero” victories over Mexico at Mapfre.
“There was an eerie connection here, always,” Porter said. “So I always had it in the back of my mind that I would eventually coach here.”
Porter departed Portland by his own choice after the 2017 season. (He claims he’d accomplished all he wanted to and was ready for his next challenge: “I like to leave when the club’s up. I don’t like to leave when the club’s down. I don’t like to overstay my welcome,” he said.) Following a self-imposed sabbatical throughout most of 2018 that he spent living near his father and brother in Hilton Head, South Carolina, Porter was on the hunt for a new job last fall. At first, the Crew wasn’t even on his radar.
“I honestly thought the club was going to be leaving, so as I was waiting for the right opportunity, it wasn’t even on the list,” he said. “When I first saw the tentative announcement that they were going to be staying, I thought, ‘Huh, interesting. That would definitely be a place I’d be interested in.’”
Like Bezbatchenko, Porter had reservations about the Columbus market after years of business-side decline. On a Sunday in early December, his concerns were assuaged. Porter met for five hours with Edwards, the Haslams, the Haslams’ son-in-law, J.W. Johnson, and Ohio State alumni director Jim Smith — a former Crew GM who helped broker the deal to save the team — and came away hoping to land the job.
“What cemented my interest,” Porter said, “was meeting with the Haslam and the Edwards families and hearing their vision on the future and that they were looking to change the game a bit in Columbus — not just save it and keep treading water, staying afloat. They wanted to get the club back to the golden days.”
Crew leadership was equally impressed with Porter, who Dee Haslam called “the most intense, competitive coach you could find.” But because they still hadn’t completed their deal to take over the team, Porter continued to entertain other options, including the Los Angeles Galaxy’s coaching vacancy, an opportunity he said came up after his meeting with Crew brass.
On Dec. 10, Porter was spotted with Galaxy GM Dennis te Kloese courtside at a Lakers game. The following day, The Athletic reported Porter was “deep into negotiations” with L.A. Two days after that, Porter broke things off with the Galaxy to finalize a deal with the Crew, which he officially signed on Jan. 1, the new regime’s first official day in charge. (The Galaxy job eventually went to Crew legend Guillermo Barros Schelotto.)
“That’s why I ended up entertaining the L.A. job, just to make sure that this was going to happen,” Porter said. “Obviously it kind of pushed things along a little quicker, and it ended up working out for the best.”
Bezbatchenko is trim, charming and as brainy as his glasses suggest. Porter is also clean-cut but a bit gruffer, with a barely contained intensity simmering beneath the surface. Personality-wise, they seem well-suited for their roles. And now that they’re settling into those roles, they have a lot of work to do.
“Instead of ‘Save the Crew’ it’s ‘Elevate the Crew,’” Bezbatchenko said. “That’s something Caleb and I’ve been talking about.”
On the soccer side, that means winning championships. It’s something Porter talks about a lot: Despite consistent success under Berhalter, the Crew has now gone a decade without a trophy. “I’m very motivated by bringing trophies,” he said.
Whereas Berhalter is almost supernaturally calm and collected, Porter is proudly emotional. “I coach from my heart, and I give everything I have,” he said, “but I can only coach that way if I have a connection and a purpose and a meaning.” Citing his history with Akron and Portland, he says he has always loved helping underdogs become champions. He was attracted to the passion of the Save the Crew movement, “but it can’t be just about saving it.” His self-imposed burden is to surpass the Crew’s previous heights of glory.
To do so, he’s preaching an aggressive philosophy he calls “dominant football” — dictating the game with the ball, applying defensive pressure high up the field, and generally prioritizing the creation of scoring chances. “When you look at my teams, we usually score goals,” he said. “A lot of goals.”
Porter applauded the “stable foundation” Berhalter left behind, and he appreciates how the former coach instilled his players with precision and purpose. But he’s hoping they become “a little more ruthless” on his watch. He wants opponents to not just respect the Crew but fear them.
“The fans of course enjoy you winning,” Porter said, “but they want to see you winning in an attack-oriented way, in an aggressive way, in an exciting way — especially with the sport still growing in this country.”
Porter hopes to avoid the low-scoring soccer that remains anathema to many Americans. But he recognizes that winning is the bottom line and that an exciting loss is still a loss, so the offensive onslaught must be reined in sometimes: “I don’t think you can have a philosophy where you die in beauty,” he said. Particularly in Columbus, where Ohio State football is baked into the culture, “people are used to a winning team.”
Understanding the Columbus mentality is even more pivotal to Bezbatchenko’s task of developing the Crew’s business side. This is a market where soccer has underperformed for years, but also one that was granted a franchise in the ’90s because it generated more season ticket commitments than any city in America. (Bezbatchenko remembered going to Kroger with his parents to drop off their deposit.)
“In the first few years, they were averaging 25 to 30,000 [fans],” he said. “The question is: How do we get it back there?”
He understands he’s entering a different demographic landscape. “In Toronto, it’s a very recent immigration population where most of my colleagues and friends’ parents were born in Europe,” Bezbatchenko said. “There’s a foundation where they maybe already have [soccer] in their blood.” Whereas families who’ve lived in Ohio for generations grew up with a mix of sports that may or may not include soccer. “You have different starting points in terms of the ways that fans connect with the game,” he said.
Regardless, Ohio has long been a hotbed for this sport. Bezbatchenko pointed out that we’re one of the few states with two youth soccer associations: a northern and southern. He knows there are people in Columbus who take soccer very seriously; he’s lived that life. He also knows he must appeal to those people while simultaneously selling more general sports fans on the unique appeal of the soccer experience — a subject he can expound on at length if you let him get going.
With the season kicking off Saturday, March 2, Bezbatchenko’s first priority was filling vacancies on the coaching and training staff. He’s now hiring “key positions on the executive team” and working with the Browns organization to integrate operations, “find efficiencies, be smarter.” As for collaborating with Save the Crew?
“I think everything is an option,” he said. “We need to initiate programs from a traditional way to attract people to the stadium and to attract partners that are with us for the long term. At the same time, we would be silly not to avail ourselves to this powerful and passionate group of people who are creative and have great ideas. We’ve already been working with them. The question is doing it in a way that’s process-driven that can actually lead to action.”
Bezbatchenko will also be scouting new player acquisitions, overseeing plans for the Crew’s new stadium and training facility, and taking over the youth academy system. After so many people rallied to save the Crew, he and Porter have been entrusted with steering it into the future.
“I think we hired the best team we could find,” Dee Haslam said. “Losing Gregg was kind of a blow, but I think we made the best of it. I think we’ve ended up in a really good place.”