National Writer: Charles Boehm

Columbus Crew remain in familiar hands with Issa Tall promotion


For a few years now, it seemed a question of when, not if, the Columbus Crew would lose assistant general manager Issa Tall to a chief soccer officer position at another MLS organization.

Working as the right-hand man to Columbus president Tim Bezbatchenko as they won the 2020 and 2023 MLS Cups, reached this year’s Concacaf Champions Cup final and moved into a gleaming new stadium and training facility, Tall helped transform the Crew from relocation-threatened underdogs into a model club on and off the pitch.

It earned him a reputation among insiders as one of the league’s fastest-rising young executives; he reportedly interviewed with D.C. United for their GM vacancy over the winter.

But Tall won’t have to leave central Ohio to take that next step in his career.

That’s because the Crew have elected to promote from within in the wake of Bezbatchenko’s departure this week to take up a newly-created president’s role at Black Knight Football Club, the entity that oversees soccer operations for billionaire Bill Foley’s portfolio of holdings, including AFC Bournemouth (England), Auckland FC (New Zealand), FC Lorient (France) and Hibernian FC (Scotland).

“It's something we've talked for years with Tim. He's always coached me up to be a GM one day,” Tall, who also worked with Bezbatchenko at Toronto FC and at league headquarters a decade ago, told reporters in a Friday afternoon press conference at Field.

“When there were opportunities elsewhere in the league, he pushed me to go and to try. So did ownership; they didn’t block me. And this whole time it was a succession planning, whether it was for this club or for my own sake … at one point I was probably showing that I'm capable of becoming the GM, and when Tim got poached, ownership just trusted me with the role.”

Big shoes to fill

Bezbatchenko, widely known simply as “Bez” over his impressive stints in Columbus and at TFC, where he was instrumental in the Reds’ golden era from 2016-19, is a massive departure. Friday’s accompanying departure of Corey Wray, another respected assistant GM in Columbus, would appear to represent another destabilizing loss.

But Tall and owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam sought to reassure supporters of the Yellow Football Team that the organizational culture – and its commitment to perennial success – is sturdy enough to endure.

“Tim did a tremendous job and not only was a great guy to work with, but has become a good friend, he and [his wife] Annie,” said Jimmy Haslam. “So we wish them the best of luck and I think everybody understands what an honor it is for him to go from MLS to a key executive position in the Premier League. I don’t want to say it’s never been done, but I think it’s very rare to do that. So it’s a tremendous accomplishment.

“At the same time, we’re really fired up to work with Issa.”

A Frenchman who first moved Stateside to play college soccer at Adelphi University, Tall is said to have played key roles in designing LDC and the OhioHealth Performance Center and incorporating analytics into club decision-making, as well as showcase acquisitions like the record-breaking transfer deals for Lucas Zelarayán and Cucho Hernández and the trade that brought Crew icon Darlington Nagbe back to Ohio. On Friday he spoke of an overarching ‘one club’ mentality that will sustain continued success – and which has already attracted attention across MLS and beyond.

“What we have created at this club, in terms of the culture and the people we have, we are asked every day by people to join us,” said Tall. “If there's one thing I'm really proud of what we've built here, it's really the culture whereby we have people from all over the country coming to Columbus for X reasons, and when they come to our training facility, as soon as they step foot in, they sense something special. And to hear that feedback is so rewarding – and I'm telling you, we get so many requests of people wanting to join our club.”

Youth development focus

As Haslam noted, the Crew have a well-timed bye weekend to recuperate from last week’s gutting loss to Pachuca in the CCC final, and must then refocus themselves on making the most of the campaign still ahead. They sit seventh in the Eastern Conference table with games in hand on those ahead of them, and even with CCC front and center have lost just two league matches thus far.

In the wider picture, Tall plans to nurture further gains from Columbus’ developmental pipeline, which has lately drawn plaudits given the vital contributions their MLS NEXT Pro second team has made to the successes under head coach Wilfried Nancy.

“It's probably putting more attention to our player development, our academy. It’s something very important to myself, because I come through those ranks,” said Tall, “and so it is for Wilfried, who went with much the same pathway that I did.

“And we do have talent here in Columbus, we do have talent here in Ohio. Why can’t we compete against the best teams, the best youth teams in the country? Why can’t we develop even more players? That’s the goal with that ‘one club’ philosophy, just to empower and get more out of the entire club and not just the folks on the first team.”