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MLSE parts ways with Toronto FC, Argonauts president Bill Manning

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Toronto FC President Bill Manning speaks to the media during a press conference in Toronto on Tuesday, June 27, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Arlyn McAdorey

TORONTO — Time ran out for Bill Manning, who oversaw Toronto FC and Argonaut championships in his role as president of the MLS and CFL teams.

Manning also ran out of results and people to fire in a 'What have you done for me lately?" business, with Toronto FC an anchor around his neck in recent seasons.

The Major League Soccer side has posted a 26-69-30 league record since its last post-season appearance in 2020, when it finished second overall in the league but failed to make it past the first round of the playoffs.

Having changed coaches and GMs, Manning found himself in the firing line Thursday.

Toronto FC (7-13-3) is sliding down the MLS Eastern Conference standings this season having lost six straight in league play and is winless in nine (0-7-2). News of Manning's departure comes the morning after a 2-1 loss to CPL champion Forge FC in the first leg of their Canadian Championship semifinal.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment says Manning's exit was by mutual decision.

"Today's a very difficult day," MLSE president and CEO Keith Pelley told The Canadian Press. “Bill's been an important leader and contributor in our organization for nearly nine years. He's an accomplished team executive and, first and foremost, he's a good man. So days like today are difficult on all of us.

"We have a promise to our organization and our fans that we're going to ensure that our teams have every resource to win," he added. "And we felt that making a change at this particular time would give us the best opportunity for that."

The move comes on the eve of the secondary transfer window opening for TFC. Coach John Herdman has said the struggling club will be looking to add talent.

"The timing was right," said Pelley. "There's a lot of work ahead."

As part of the transition, TFC general manager Jason Hernandez and Argonauts GM Michael Clemons will report directly to Pelley.

The MLSE boss said he plans to spend "a significant amount of time" over the next month or so with both franchises. A decision on the position of president for the two teams is "something that we will evaluate over the coming months."

Manning was named TFC president in October 2015 and later added the title of Argos president when the Canadian Football League franchise was acquired by MLSE in January 2018.

TFC won the treble — the MLS Cup, Canadian Championship and Supporters Shield — in 2017 and made it to the MLS Cup final in 2019. But it never really recovered from having to shift operations south of the border during the pandemic.

Since the departure of Greg Vanney in December 2020, the club tried Chris Armas, Javier Perez and Bob Bradley as coach before settling on Herdman, the former Canada coach, last August.

Herdman is struggling to rebuild the team, which lacks depth and has spent like a drunken sailor.

Ali Curtis served as GM and Bradley as sporting director before Hernandez was elevated to GM in June 2023.

The Toronto Argonauts, 2-2-0 this season, won the Grey Cup in 2022 on Manning's watch, edging the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 24-23.

But the CFL team has made headlines off the field with quarterback Chad Kelly suspended in May for at least nine regular-season games for violating the league's gender-based violence policy, following its probe into a lawsuit filed by a former strength and conditioning coach against both the player and club.

Pelley said the Kelly case did not factor into his decision.

Manning was a two-time winner of the MLS Executive of the Year award with Real Salt Lake before joining TFC. His hiring meant there was a president in charge of each of MLSE's prized assets: Brendan Shanahan with the Maple Leafs, Masai Ujiri with the Raptors and Manning with TFC.

TFC had been without a president since firing Kevin Payne, who doubled as GM, in September 2013.

At the time of his hiring, MLSE chair Larry Tanenbaum called Manning an "important and impressive executive."

"Our ambition is to bring MLS championships to our fans in Toronto and adding a leader of Bill's calibre is another important part of that process and vision," Tanenbaum added.

TFC has dug deep into MLSE pockets with Italian stars Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi the second and sixth-highest-paid MLS players this season at US$15.4 million and US$6.295 million, respectively.

Toronto's league record since the Italians made their debut in July 2022 is an underwhelming 15-39-16.

At the time of their signing, Manning made headlines when he revealed his player search started with the internet.

“I actually went to the Transfermarkt website and I looked up the Italian national team on what players were coming out of contract,” Manning told reporters. “And Lorenzo was one of the few players that was coming out of contract. I started writing down players that I thought were world-class, that I thought would have commercial value in this market.”

Venezuelan international Yeferson Soteldo was a bust as an earlier designated player signing.

Manning won the MLS's top executive award in 2012 and 2014 in eight years at Real Salt Lake, winning the 2009 MLS Cup and finishing runner-up in 2013.

A native of Massapequa, N.Y., Manning began his career in sports management with the Continental Indoor Soccer League during its inaugural season in 1993. He subsequently moved on to the United Soccer League with the Long Island Rough Riders and then the Minnesota Thunder where he was named USL Executive of the Year in 1999.

He started in MLS in 2000 as president and GM of the Tampa Bay Mutiny.

After Tampa folded, Manning worked for the NBA Houston Rockets (director of corporate partnerships) and then the NFL Philadelphia Eagles (vice-president of sales and services) before Real Salt Lake brought him back to MLS in 2008.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 11, 2024

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press


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