When Toronto FC fans displayed a huge banner saying "Started from the bottom, now we're here" at the home regular-season finale, team president Bill Manning had every reason to smile.
It could have been written about him.
Rewind 16 years and Manning was in charge of the league-worst Tampa Bay Mutiny, who finished in the MLS basement at 4-21-2 — despite starting with two wins in its first three games. The Mutiny's 14 points remains a league low.
"I remember it vividly," Manning said in an interview in his office overlooking the TFC training fields. "It drives me every day."
Now he is presiding over what may be the best-ever team in Major League Soccer.
In addition to the Voyageurs Cup as Canadian champion, Toronto (20-5-9) holds the Supporters' Shield as the team with the best regular-season record. Toronto, which amassed a league-record 69 points, opens the playoffs Monday at the New York Red Bulls.
Beaten by Seattle in a penalty shootout in last year's MLS Cup, Manning's team is four games away from returning to the championship game and completing its record-breaking season.
Manning, who had been United Soccer League executive of the year with the Minnesota Thunder prior to coming to MLS, was 34 when he took over as president and GM of the Mutiny in 2000.
Unlike today's Toronto setup, Tampa was a skeleton operation.
In his first year at the helm, Manning saw the Mutiny finish fourth overall at 16-12-4 (52 points) before losing 6-2 on aggregate to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs.
Manning, who saw his team as good but not good enough to win it all, opted not to pick up coach Tim Hankinson's contract option at the end of the 2000 season.
"It was a little abrasive. It wasn't a very warm, fuzzy relationship," said Manning. "And I let that get in the way of winning — and the team. I was very confident in my own abilities ... I felt I can just change the coach and bring this team to another level."
The team was owned by the league at the time and Manning was told, for financial reasons, he couldn't make any other changes. That left him with a staff still largely loyal to Hankinson.
"That created a whole set of problems for the new coach (Alfonso Mondelo)," Manning said.
That ugly situation taught Manning that a team had to be in complete alignment.
"Literally it goes from the equipment manager to the PR guys to the team administrator to the athletic trainers. One of those guys can rip apart a team if they have the wrong personality, the wrong interests. And if they're not aligned with your head coach."
Mondelo was put in a situation where he couldn't succeed.
"What happens is the players read that. And then the players start seeing the dysfunction. And it just fell apart," Manning said.
Outscored 68-32 in 2001, the Mutiny were equally poor at home (2-10-2) and away (2-11-0).
"I remember saying to myself it can't get any worse. And we kept losing," Manning recalled.
It was a dark time elsewhere with the 9/11 attacks, which prompted the league to cut the season short.
With the benefit of hindsight, Manning says letting Hankinson go was a mistake.
"I should have kept him on board and given him the opportunity to see if he could have brought the team to another level ... I think he would say he made mistakes too. He and I probably could have figured out a way to align better.
"But I think we both had too strong personalities and rather than figuring out how to work together, we figured out how not to work together."
It's a lesson Manning has never forgotten.
At Real Salt Lake and Toronto, he inherited GMs and coaches (Garth Lagerwey and Jason Kreis and Tim Bezbatchenko and Greg Vanney). In both cases, he kept them in place.
"I made sure we found out ways to work together," said Manning, adding: "Coaches need time to build their team."
There were other issues in Tampa.
Senegal striker Mamadou (Big Mama) Diallo won the 2000 Golden Boot with 26 goals and wanted an improved contract. Manning, sympathetic to the request, went to head office.
The league offered more incentives but insisted on the same base salary. Manning says it proved to be another painful lesson learned.
With goals scored being part of the incentives, Diallo started shooting from 40 yards out.
"Everything he did was about scoring goals instead of helping the team win," said Manning.
Seven games into the season, a frustrated Diallo was fined US$5,000, suspended four games and sent to anger management classes for arguing with the referee and confronting a fan after a loss in Colorado.
There was also drama with star playmaker Carlos Valderrama, the league's first MVP. The Colombian with the big hair, who had 12 goals and 81 assists in 114 games spread over two go-rounds in Tampa, was clearly still in the Hankinson camp.
And with the team struggling, Valderrama's frustration was boiling over on the field.
"I made the decision to break it up. We had to start over," said Manning.
He traded Valderrama, goalkeeper Scott Garlick and defender Ritchie Kotschau mid-season to the Colorado Rapids where Hankinson had resurfaced as coach.
Manning wanted to go young, adding talent to a core that include Adin Brown, Steve Ralston and Eric Quill. He started negotiating for Czech-born playmaker Lubo Moravcik, Costa Rican midfielder-forward Alonso Solis and Scottish defender Colin Hendry.
He never got the chance. Tampa, one of the league's 10 original teams in 1996, and the Miami Fusion folded after the 2001 season. Manning got the call one day before the news was made public — "It was a punch in the gut," he said.
"One of the biggest regrets of my career was not having the opportunity to rebuild that team," Manning added.
But he says he knew he would get another chance. And that he would never make the same mistakes again.
In the wake of Tampa folding, Manning elected to get more business experience. He worked for the NBA Houston Rockets (director of corporate partnerships) and then the NFL Philadelphia Eagles (vice-president sales and services) before Real Salt Lake brought him back to MLS in 2008.
"When I went to Salt Lake, one of the first things in my mind was I'm going to prove I can win in this league.
RSL won the MLS Cup in 2009. Manning hopes for a repeat this year in Toronto.
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