The Columbus Crew has been saved. Now what? After a 15-month roller coaster ride -- one that started with a threatened relocation to Austin, Texas, and ended with the team getting new owners who will keep the organization in Columbus -- that is the question for president Tim Bezbatchenko and manager Caleb Porter.
The pair were officially named to their respective posts last month, shortly after the club's change in ownership was made official in late December, and for both men, there was a sense of returning to their roots. Bezbatchenko is a native of nearby Westerville, Ohio, attending Crew games during his high school years. Porter's first head-coaching job was at the University of Akron, spending seven seasons there and winning a national championship in 2010.
Such sentiments must now be pushed to the side, even as fans continue to be warmed by the herculean effort put forth that resulted in the Crew remaining in Columbus. There is work to be done, and without much effort, Bezbatchenko rattled off the litany of tasks that have been put before him.
"We've got to push our roster forward. We have to follow up with our commitments to our fans, and hopefully they can do the same with their pledges for season tickets," said Bezbatchenko via telephone. "We have to get working on our stadium and our training ground, but most importantly, from a 30,000-feet perspective, we need to continue this momentum."
Yet there is also a wariness about Bezbatchenko's approach, born of his five-plus years as the GM of Toronto FC. In many respects, his current environment is the opposite of what he faced with TFC. In Toronto, the business side was relatively stable, while the on-field product was anything but. For the Crew, the team's performances provided stability amid the twists, turns and altitude changes taking place off it. In both instances, there was upheaval, leading Bezbatchenko to avoid rushing headlong into anything even amid promises of additional resources from the new ownership group headlined by the Haslam and Edwards families.
"We have a new coach, GM and president, so it's really just making sure that the pieces fit together during this moment of transition and that we don't make any hasty decisions," said Bezbatchenko. "That's sometimes what you do to your roster when you're in moments of transition; that's when other teams can take advantage of you.
"If we sign high-end DPs, you're going to be signing them to multiyear contracts. It will be difficult to get them all on loan. The last thing we want to do is enter into all these long-term contracts now and sort of shoot ourselves in the foot for building momentum towards our new stadium."
Normally, that's the kind of talk that drives coaches crazy. The preference is, of course, to spend money and thus improve the roster. It was the promise of greater resources that helped clinch the arrival of both Bezbatchenko and Porter, but Porter has no problem with a go-slow approach.
"We're not going to come out of the gate and start throwing money down the drain," said Porter prior to the start of training camp. "We're going to be fiscally responsible, very mindful of making the right decisions. Maybe perhaps in time there will be an increase in budget, and we're going to be methodical in how we make those decisions, and it's got to fit into the system and the way we're going to go about building the team. It's got to be the right decision, always."
Porter can afford to be patient to an extent. In most situations, a new coach enters the fray because something went terribly wrong under the previous regime. That isn't the case with the Crew, a side that has had some playoff success each of the past two seasons.
Columbus possesses a gifted playmaker in Federico Higuain, a ground-covering midfielder in Artur and a trio of U.S. internationals in goalkeeper Zack Steffen, midfielder Wil Trapp and forward Gyasi Zardes. The team also recently acquired winger Robinho Barbosa, adding some speed to an area where Porter said he wanted more attacking diversity.
Yet Steffen is already set to join Manchester City this summer, and there has been interest from European clubs for Trapp and Zardes. When asked about those developments, Bezbatchenko trots out the standard line: The Crew will listen to offers if they come, but there are no plans to sell either Trapp or Zardes at the present time. Trapp, with a Greek passport now in his possession, remains with the Crew for now, but interest figures to heat up as the summer months approach.
Of course, Columbus would have to agree to any transfer, which will take some doing.
"Based on some of the offers I've received in the past [while in Toronto], it just seems to be a new world order in terms of what our ownership will take," said Bezbatchenko. "And the replacement costs for us, they're fairly high.
"If we're going to look for a player on the international market and you're taking a risk on a player that's never been in the U.S. or Canada, you really have to think about these things. Maybe a few years ago you'd be more willing to sell."
In Porter, Columbus does have a manager who has proven himself flexible in terms of style. In Portland, he started off with a heavy emphasis on possession; later, he went more counterattacking when his available personnel dictated it. During his last year with the Timbers in 2017, he rode the brilliance of Diego Valeri to a conference-high 60 goals.
Porter counts himself an admirer of both Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City due to the fact that they can beat you in a variety of ways, something he's aiming to replicate in Columbus.
"I think what you'll see out of this team is we'll definitely be a team that keeps the ball. We definitely will be a team that looks to dictate games with the ball," he said. "But we'll also be a team that will push our lines high and press at times, and counterpress. We'll be a team that certainly plays in transition, whether that's winning the ball high up the pitch. But we'll be a team that scores goals. We'll be a team that plays in an effective and exciting attack-oriented way, and hopefully an effective way that wins games."
Bezbatchenko has the added challenge of overseeing the business side of the Crew's operations, an expansion from his duties from when he was in Toronto. There is a new stadium to point toward in terms of building the fanbase and increasing the revenue streams that come with such an opportunity. Therefore, it also means rebuilding the business wing of the organization, some of whom relocated to join the new team in Austin. He added that he wants to work with the Columbus Partnership -- an association of Columbus businesses that helped lead the effort to keep the team in Ohio -- to get more fans in the stadium.
"I think there's a lot of goodwill in the community with the Crew. I think a lot of people have good feelings toward it," he said. "So, I don't think anything needs to be repaired, because this ownership group or the executive team weren't the cause of any so-called damage. I would say healing together, and just getting past all this and just thinking about the future and getting excited about the potential of this club."
Given the support the community has shown for the Crew over the past 15 months, there's plenty to be excited about.