Jack: Bezbatchenko impresses as he steps out of the shadows

Kristian Jack
9/1/2014 9:14:56 PM
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Two shadows grew large around him.

One came with a great following, making people feel good about their team and their city.

The other helped bring big names to the club, occupying a position that had been vacated far too often in years past.

Each spoke a lot about the club's direction and it was easy to think they were the men in charge of rescuing a moribund franchise.

Yet in the background sat Tim Bezbatchenko, observing everything.

As the season wore on the whispers in the halls of BMO Field grew louder and louder.

Just who was in charge of this club?

Tim Leiweke had done his job. The outgoing President & CEO of Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment had treated Toronto FC the same way as the Toronto Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs.

He was the conductor of an orchestra that had never been heard in Toronto the moment he preached 'why can't we be great?' on the day the club introduced Jermain Defoe and Michael Bradley.

And then there was Ryan Nelsen. It appeared the head coach, for this year anyway, was playing with house money, given a team that surely couldn't fail on its promise of making the playoffs for the first time. He had been given players past club coaches would have dreamed to work with, but with that came higher expectations. None more so than inside the dressing room.

"Michael will keep me on my toes," said Nelsen about the American midfielder when he joined from Roma.

How true it was. Sure, as he reminded us in his final press conference on Saturday, Nelsen had a fine playing career but in his first ever head coaching job he now had to prove to senior members of the team that he could make them collectively better.

It proved to be a hurdle too high for Nelsen and the assistants he chose to surround himself with.

Bezbatchenko and new coach Greg Vanney regularly used words like tempo and speed when wanting to improve the team and it was clear that Nelsen's side weren't able to dictate games, despite the talent he had available, instead resorting to sitting deeper and morphing themselves into a counter-attacking side, even at home.

At the beginning of July when Toronto hosted DC United, Nelsen decided to go away from his rigid 4-4-2. Back from the World Cup, Bradley went into the side, in a midfield three, and for the first 45 minutes both sides played a highly entertaining, advanced, technical style, matching up in midfield in a half that was a superb advertisement for how far the league has come.

Then at the start of the second half Nelsen removed Bradley Orr from midfield, went back to 4-4-2, allowed DC to run the game in midfield and go on and win it 2-1.

More whispers.

Three wins from their next eight, heading into Saturday's game against New England, and it became clear we'd soon find out who was in charge.

On Friday, Tim Bezbatchenko stepped out of the shadows by publicly demanding more from the team.

If he wanted to set Nelsen up he had done it perfectly. Post match on Saturday, after a dismal performance against New England at home, the coach fired back but by then he was already out of a job.

As Nelsen told the press about his playing resume, Bezbatchenko had seen enough and was behind closed doors putting the plan in place that culminated with the Kiwi being notified Sunday morning of his departure.

And yet still no news broke until an official press release was emailed to the media after noon.

By then the players were in a team meeting being told of what had happened.

In past eras of this young club such a story would have been leaked the moment Saturday's game was over. That is a credit to Bezbatchenko and the staff remaining at the club.

The 32-year-old could do nothing, however, about the leaks swirling around Jermain Defoe.

Nevertheless the timing of Nelsen's firing allowed him to be in control and at the forefront of the story. It also, for a crucial 24-hour period, led many to assume Defoe was unhappy because of the sacking of his former Tottenham teammate.

That, as revealed by Bezbatchenko in a conference call on Monday, was not the truth.

"We have a committed player. He was frustrated with the course of our team, no doubt. That was one of the reasons we made the (Nelsen) change," confirmed the GM about the English striker.

Defoe's commitment to the club remains a large question. He is in England at the moment and according to Tony Fernandes and Harry Redknapp, owner and manager of QPR, wants to come home.

Bezbatchenko hinted as much in Sunday's press conference.

He said: "If you are not 100% committed to what we are doing, then we need to sit down and talk and that goes for everyone."

The transfer window closed on Monday with Defoe as a Toronto FC player. For now.

Bezbatchenko confirmed he is recovering from symptoms of a sports hernia and a decision in the next couple of weeks will have to be made if he needs surgery, which will likely keep him out of the majority of the regular season.

It is the third time this season that Defoe has missed extensive time through injury. This winter he will be a 32-year-old injury prone forward. A player, when fit, who is dynamic and a true difference maker at this level. That is something the club can accept if he wants to still play for them.

A 32-year-old injury prone unhappy striker, however, is a completely different situation.

"You can't let history dictate what the appropriate decision is to make."

Those were Bezbatchenko's carefully selected words in response to why now was the time Nelsen had to leave as head coach. Vanney becomes the ninth full time boss in nine years.

They could also ring true with the Defoe situation. It is easy to blame the club for Defoe's lack of commitment, based on their history, but this is an Englishman who is still wanted by multiple Premier League clubs. I know personally how difficult it can be to adapt to a new country and Defoe will not be the first man from the United Kingdom to commit to living in Canada, only to go home within a year. Defoe is a Londoner, who loves football and left behind his mates to start a new adventure when he wasn't playing in the Premier League.

The Premier League, fresh with even more cash than it has ever had before, is calling again. Defoe, back home with his beloved Sky Sports on television, will have seen a striker like Shane Long go for 12 million pounds and wonder about himself. Premier League clubs are searching the globe for a striker who can score 12-15 per season and keep them from relegation and in Defoe they see a proven commodity at that level, not a gamble from elsewhere.

A record bid for his services means he can go back to England and get more money than he got when he was at Tottenham so his head is bound to turn even if he was happy in North America.

That is not what Toronto FC fans want to hear but it is reality and it is hard to imagine Defoe not wanting this no matter what MLS club he played for.

Bezbatchenko eventually turned down the offer from QPR but he knows they will be back. QPR, or another Premier League club, will be just as desperate for Defoe in January, when TFC will have more time to use the money to improve their squad.

Now was not the time to sell their talisman, injured or not. Just imagine whose job would be on the line if he had allowed Defoe to leave today and the club go on to miss the playoffs.

Far too many false dawns have descended on this club and winds of caution are once again blowing around BMO Field as another new era sets on Toronto FC but given the cards he was dealt it is easy to be impressed with Bezbatchenko's work over the last four days.

He was not dealt easy cards but he has played them very well in his first true test at the top table.

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