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Toronto FC's Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal at Raymond James Stadium was a trip down Memory Lane for both club president Bill Manning and GM Ali Curtis.
Back in 2000-01, Manning was president and GM of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, which played there before folding after a dismal 4-21-2 campaign in 2001. And Curtis was drafted by Tampa second overall in the 2001 MLS SuperDraft (former TFC coach Ryan Nelsen went two picks later to D.C. United).
"My office was actually at Raymond James Stadium … I actually have a lot of good memories there," Manning recalled.
And more than a few contacts.
Those include Mickey Farrell, senior vice-president of the Tampa Sports Authority which manages the stadium, and Brian Ford, COO of the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who play there.
"They were both instrumental in us getting the facility," said Manning, who calls it a "world-class venue."
Raymond James is just the latest stop on TFC's pandemic travels. Toronto, which finished out last season playing in East Hartford, Conn., has set up shop in Orlando this year.
Orlando's Exploria Stadium wasn't available for Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League match and Manning said the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in nearby Lake Buena Vista, which TFC had used for a round-of-16 match against Mexico's Club Leon, "wasn't going to work for CONCACAF" for the quarterfinal.
Toronto's next home game is May 12 against Columbus Crew SC at Exploria Stadium. There is a break in June for the FIFA international window as well as July 9-16 around the opening of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The hope is TFC will be able to get home sooner than later.
"We're working with the government on being able to train (there) and we'll see where we're going to play from there," Manning said. "There's still a lot up in the air but we're trying to work that through.
"It's almost like things change weekly. It's crazy," he added.
One option is training in Toronto and playing games somewhere closer in the U.S. Helping matters potentially is the fact that the team is slated to get its second round of COVID vaccinations next week.
"The goal would be to train back in Toronto — obviously we'll be fully vaccinated," Manning said. "If the border is still an issue, we'll probably have a place that's closer to home, so it's not as big as a flight.
"As long as we can stay back in Toronto. That's still a big question mark."
Manning was 34 when he took over the Mutiny in 2000 after being named United Soccer League executive of the year with the USL A-League champion Minnesota Thunder in 1999.
The Mutiny finished fourth overall at 16-12-4 (52 points) in Manning's first year at the helm, losing 6-2 on aggregate to the Los Angeles Galaxy in the first round of the playoffs.
Manning, who viewed his team as good but not great, did not pick up coach Tim Hankinson’s contract option at the end of the 2000 season. 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.
Manning eventually traded star playmaker Carlos Valderrama, goalkeeper Scott Garlick and defender Ritchie Kotschau mid-season to the Colorado Rapids where Hankinson had resurfaced as coach.
Outscored 68-32 in 2001, the Mutiny were equally poor at home (2-10-2) and away (2-11-0). Its 14 points remains a league-low.
"There's more to it than just those stats but I guess you're only as good as your record says you are," said Curtis. "I will say I think we were a lot better than our record said we were. So it's unfortunate that season. It was a tough year for a lot of different reasons."
Curtis played 20 games for the Mutiny that season, starting 12. He finished with two goals and an assist.
"Any time you're a professional soccer player, every stadium you play there's a memory. We didn't win a lot of games though in that stadium," he said with a chuckle. "Those memories I'm not thinking about.
"The team that we have in Toronto FC is exponentially better than the team that we had in Tampa."
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.
"I had to exorcise some demons when I came back to MLS," said Manning. "One of my biggest regrets was not being able to play the next season (with Tampa), to fix that 2001 season.
"I never thought I'd get back there in MLS … It brings back some good memories and it brings back some memories where sometimes when things don't go your way, you've got to learn from it. It was a big learning experience for me, that last year (in Tampa)."
Curtis, meanwhile, moved on to play for D.C. United and FC Dallas.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press