TORONTO — After jumping into the deep end with Toronto FC in January 2019, GM Ali Curtis has some security now as he heads into the 2021 season.
The MLS team announced Tuesday it had signed the 42-year-old Curtis to a multi-year contract extension. His existing deal was due to expire at the end of 2021.
Curtis joined Toronto in January 2019 in the wake of Tim Bezbatchenko's departure to run his hometown team in Columbus. Despite upheaval on and off the field, Curtis has kept the club near the top of the MLS standings — and within one win of the title in 2019.
“I'm a big believer in stability and Ali has proved during his two seasons with the club that he’s a talented executive and a tireless worker," team president Bill Manning said in a statement. "We have a great working relationship and I look forward to continuing our work to improve TFC in every way.”
Curtis's task in Toronto was more than just succeeding Bezbatchenko, who had helped turn the club around from league doormat to champion (in 2017).
He inherited a team making headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Star Italian striker Sebastian Giovinco (to Saudi Arabia's Al-Hilal FC) and Spanish playmaker Victor Vazquez (to Qatar's Al-Arabi SC) both moved on to greener pastures in his first month at the helm.
Giovinco's salary demands and a bust-up involving Dutch defender Gregory van der Wiel, who was soon dismissed, made for a difficult 2019 training camp.
The search for a replacement designated player took him to Europe where he and Manning eventually pried Spain's Alejandro Pozuelo free from Belgium's KRC Genk. Pozuelo went on to win MLS MVP honours in 2019.
Toronto made it to the MLS Cup final in 2019, losing 3-1 to Seattle. In the pandemic-disrupted 2020 season, TFC finished runner-up to Philadelphia in the race for the Supporters’ Shield.
While the team exited quietly at the first playoff hurdle — upset by expansion Nashville SC — TFC showed plenty of resolve during a nomadic, difficult year.
"There have been challenges that we really had to navigate through with some muscle and some brain power," Curtis said in an interview. "But I'm happy where we are and there's still a more work to do."
"I'm thankful where I am," he added. "And grateful. And I think personally I still have a lot to prove. And I want to do everything I can to make the club successful."
The club's record under Curtis in MLS play is 31-16-4 or 1.63 points a game, which stands fifth in the league in PPG over that time period.
Off the field he has had to lead a team during the pandemic, which forced it to move to the U.S. in both 2020 (East Hartford, Conn.) and 2021 (Orlando) because of border travel restrictions.
Curtis has also guided the club during an unprecedented time of protest against racial and social inequality. A cerebral executive who prefers to avoid the spotlight, Curtis has won the respect of his players for speaking out with them.
He had to help find a new head coach after Greg Vanney stepped down in early December, eventually to take over the Los Angeles Galaxy. Former New York Red Bulls coach Chris Armas is now in charge.
And in recent days Curtis has had to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak that forced the club to send players and staff home to self-isolate.
Curtis's current to-do list includes landing a third designated player, with Pablo Piatti having returned to play in Spain. TFC is one of several clubs linked to River Plate's Colombian forward Rafael Santos Borre.
He has some time to get his man, with the transfer window now not closing until June 1 with another window running July through August. Curtis called securing the DP "a primary piece of business that needs to get completed."
"It's at the top of the list, "he said. "I'm confident we'll make the right decision at the right time. And it will help the team."
Otherwise he has a fairly complete squad at his disposal.
"You can never say never in this game. But for the most part we feel good about the roster."
Curtis previously served as sporting director for the Red Bulls and spent eight years in the MLS head office.
As a player, Curtis won the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy in 1999 as the top male collegiate soccer player in the United States. He remains Duke University’s all-time leader in goals scored with 53.
Drafted second overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft, he played for the Tampa Bay Mutiny, D.C. United and Dallas through 2004. Manning, then running Tampa Bay, drafted him.
After his playing career ended, Curtis joined J.P. Morgan in 2004 as an analyst in Chicago and Los Angeles before joining the MLS head office in 2007 as senior director of player relations and competition.
TFC is expected to head to Florida next week to prepare for its round-of-16 series against Mexico's Club Leon in the Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. The opening game is April 7 in Mexico with the April 14 second leg to be played in the Orlando area.
Toronto kicks off the MLS regular season on April 17 against CF Montreal in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press