In 2007, Toronto FC joined Major League Soccer and for years, the club was competitively inconsequential. While supporters filled Toronto matches in droves, averaging over 20,000 per game, TFC spent the team’s first eight years of existence outside of the MLS Cup playoffs and failed to make any meaningful impact on the field.
In September of 2013, that began to change thanks to the hiring of a new general manager from Ohio, Tim Bezbatchenko and his signings. Now in his fourth season as the president and general manager of the Columbus Crew, Bezbatchenko has brought another marquee player to the Black & Gold. Following the arrival of Lucas Zelarayán in 2020, Bezbatchenko helped the team acquire record-signing Cucho Hernández from Watford FC last week.
Bezbatchenko’s front office track record includes two MLS Cups, a Supporters’ Shield, three Canadian Championships and a Campeones Cup. Along that journey, he’s brought in players to Toronto such as former United States National Team stars Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore and European striker Jermain Defoe. In Columbus, Zelarayán’s signing in 2020 was a sign that Bezbatchenko was beginning to make his mark in his home state.
While there’s still time to add to Zelarayán’s current, and short, MLS legacy, the name that ranks above all other transactions for Bezbatchenko is former Toronto midfielder Sebastian Giovinco. On Jan. 19, 2015, Bezbatchenko and Toronto FC announced Giovinco’s signing after six seasons with Italian giants Juventus. Giovinco wasted little time acclimating to MLS.
In 2015, Giovinco swept the most notable honors of the MLS award season. The then 27-year-old won MLS MVP, Newcomer of the Year and scored 22 goals to win the MLS Golden Boot. Giovinco even had the most assists in his first year. He followed that breakout season with another year creating more than 30 goals, a season with the most free kick goals (6) and an MLS Cup and Supporters’ Shield in 2017. It’s hard to imagine a better signing.
So after bringing in league and MLS Cup Most Valuable Players, where does Bezbatchenko rank the signing of Hernández?
“I think as our league has evolved, there are certain moments in time when we were getting players in their prime from Europe in Michael Bradleys, Giovincos and Altidores but this one is different,” said Bezbatchenko on Friday. “I’d put this right up there with them, maybe even higher.”
There’s a reason why, before even touching the field in MLS play, Bezbatchenko sees Hernández's arrival in MLS as his top move.
“He’s a young player, he’s entering the prime of his career,” Bezbatchenko said, “he’s played and seen what it’s like to play against the top leagues of the world and yet he’s choosing MLS because he believes that’s the best place for him and his career.”
There’s no doubting the skills of Giovinco, but Hernández comes to MLS in a different way. Giovinco came when his time at Juventus was diminishing, after nine professional seasons playing with clubs in Italy. At the same time, MLS was still attracting players from overseas but usually in the twilight of their careers. MLS today is different.
“The league is growing a lot, and the stadiums, the training facilities and the players that are coming here are all top level,” said Hernández at his introductory press conference. “It’s a very competitive league.”
If Hernández finds league success anywhere close to Giovinco, in a more competitive MLS, Hernández’s time in England won’t be his last stop in a top-five league either. Look at players like Miguel Almirón. The former Atlanta United standout joined MLS young, scored 22 goals and had 30 assists and won an MLS Cup in two seasons before moving to Newcastle United in the English Premier League.
While there are still moves made for players with fewer competitive years in front of them than behind, like LAFC’s signing of 32-year-old Gareth Bale, Hernández’s signing is part of the direction that MLS and the Crew are headed.
“It’s really exciting because I’m not sure it’s happened here before in this way,” said Bezbatchenko. “It’s really emblematic of where this club is and where this league is.”