ORLANDO, Fla. – Corey Wray’s job is to get everything right.
Wray, Toronto FC’s manager of team operations, is the man in charge of keeping the MLS club going in the right direction off the field — as quickly and comfortably as possible. A boyish-looking 28, Wray plans travel, cuts through red tape, helps settle in new players and knows where the bodies are buried.
Off the field, he is the team’s fixer home and away.
“I’d probably be the first number that people call. And then from there I just shoot it out to whatever direction it needs to go to,” he told The Canadian Press. “So I’m basically an operator, playing with the messages, sending it to the coach, trainer, equipment manager.”
Wray is sitting in the lobby bar of the team’s pre-season hotel, a Disney-area Hilton he probably knows as well as the front desk. He has negotiated everything from the team menu to the room selection, with a December reconnaissance trip to take a first-hand look for himself.
If he does his job right, no one notices him.
“It’s the best part. I’m quite OK with that,” he said.
Wray constantly has one eye looking ahead while the other surveys the present to make sure everything goes according to plan.
“I can tell you on the outside I look OK. Over the years, on the inside, I’ve had my share of heartburn and stress issues,” he said. “But I can tell when I’m stressed now, so I’m able to look after it. For the most part, I’m the calm one and hopefully that helps everyone else calm down, depending on who you have.”
Experience helps in his job since there is no guide book for mobilizing a team. There are always new wrinkles.
Wray loves the roller-coaster challenge. But his biggest fear is the unknown.
“I like when things are organized. So for me, if there are unknowns, I think that’s what keeps me up at night. And a lot of times I have been up at night,” he said with a smile, “when I don’t know something or I don’t know what we’re getting into.”
Wray has being with TFC pretty much from Day 1. His first job was as an intern, handing out media credentials at the club’s open tryouts.
At the time, he was finishing up a sports management degree at Brock University. He graduated while working for TFC with a contract job eventually turning into a full-time position.
He has moved from intern in marketing and promotions to co-ordinator of game operations to co-ordinator of team operations to manager of team operations, a position he has held for almost a year and a half.
“It’s been a pretty cool ride,” he said with a smile.
With eight coaches in seven seasons, Wray has had many masters. With many training camp visions.
For example, this pre-season is essentially one of Paul Mariner’s making, with Wray nailing down logistical details in October-November. Mariner was fired Jan. 7 and replaced by former New Zealand international Ryan Nelsen.
The good news is Nelsen appears to like the setup.
Wray may look like a choir boy, but he gets things done. He is not short on confidence, although he is quick to say he is not perfect.
Like his current coach, Wray points to the people around him for helping him in his job.
But he has learned from his mistakes. Tough on himself, the early years of learning on the job took a toll.
Now the bumps in the road are a little farther between. And he handles them better.
“I mess up all the time. It’s impossible to remember everything. The key is to just make sure you realize you’ve messed up before other people realize that. And then no one really needs to know anything else.
“As far as my experience, I can tell you when I started I was terrible. And it took probably a few years to really train my brain how to think. Without those mistakes, I don’t think I would be where I am today.”
He credits the likes of former GM Mo Johnston and Jim Brennan, a former assistant GM and now assistant coach, for putting up with him during the formative years.
No stranger to pre-season planning, Wray has put together six of the club’s seven training camps (four of which have been in Orlando).
As a veteran of the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, Wray has a pretty good handle on the team’s needs.
This year they are staying at a well-appointed Hilton, about a 10-minute drive from where they are training and playing games. The team stayed at a hotel across the street last year.
The ideal is to have the same room for meals, so players and coaches always know where to go. Players like to stay on the same floor, with coaches on another.
But equipment manager Malcolm Phillips, another important cog in the TFC wheel, also stays on the players’ floor so they don’t have far to go to drop off their gear. The treatment room is also on the players’ floor, whenever possible.
This pre-season, Wray has secured a common room for the players, so they can watch TV together or play video games.
“But for the most part, the hope is that guys are so tired that they go right to their bed, sleep, get up, eat, sleep and then repeat.”
“Players are very much creatures of habit,” he added. “So if you can keep the same schedule, then you’ll have very little to worry about.”
Toronto FC has no player curfew at camp. Not that it really needs one in Orlando. Thanks to the sprawling Disney setup, they are somewhat isolated in their posh hotel.
Players share rooms, with the exception of captain Torsten Frings.
Under Nelsen, the team provides breakfast and lunch daily at the hotel, with some dinners — usually around game days. The players — who get a per diem — can make their own dinner plans the rest of the time, offering them a respite from the routine of training camp.
“Ryan’s big thing is to make sure that they’re treated like the men they are. And it will be up to them to decide if that’s the way they need to be treated or we need to scale back,” said Wray.
Some players choose to relax by the sizable pool. Others head to the gym to get in another workout. Some can be seen in the lobby area, playing board games.
A good practice facility and reliable transportation are also essential. Toronto uses a bus to transport the players to practice while the assistant coaches and support crew go ahead by van to set the stage.
Food can also be a sore point, if done wrong.
Wray will work on menus, based on feedback from a nutrionist and TFC staff.
“It’s become pretty set over the years, We know what’s good and bad,” Wray said.
He’ll send a template to hotels, which then gets sent back for review by the team.
“I like to leave it in the chefs’ hands, because they’re the creative people,” said Wray.
So the menu might feature chef’s choice of chicken or fish often, along with some guidelines. It sounds simple.
“You’d be surprised,” said Wray. “Sometimes the memo doesn’t go through and that’s where you’ve got to jump in. But for the most part it’s hit home quite a few times before we arrive anywhere … As long as we don’t have a chef who wants to throw in cinnamon rolls or chocolate chip muffins and all that stuff — which has happened before — for the most part, it’s pretty straightforward.”
Wray is in charge of assembling the squad, bringing them in from around the globe. He’s had a lot of practice. According to a Jan. 29 Canadiansoccernews.com article, some 113 players had taken part in at least one game for the club with 95 having moved on.
“The good things is that we have probably seen just about every situation. So when players come in, I’m pretty sure we’re set for what we need to do.”
Some countries need visas. Some of those are limited in where you can go with them. Some visas need medicals. Generally speaking, Central and South American countries are especially complicated.
“A lot of it is just paperwork. We do rely on our lawyers but for the most part the key is for me to identify what might be needed and then go from there.”
“The difficult part is the expectations from the coaches, and trying to manage that,” he added. “Because when they want a player here tomorrow, the only person that really has to stress is me.
“Sometimes they don’t co-operate at some of the embassies as much as we like. So then the next step is to try to manage the expectations of the coaches. And in pre-season, every day is very important.”
Wray, who hits the road with the team, is now finalizing travel and accommodations for the 2013 season, with 17 MLS away games plus cup competitions.
He doesn’t get much of a jump on the schedule. “It’s go time now,” he said.
Whether you’re a vacationer or an MLS team, booking ahead mean better prices and flight options. It also helps that Wray knows the ins and outs of MLS travel out of Toronto.
Columbus, for example, is not that far away but can be a problem.
“That’s probably the worst flight of the year for us — trying to fit the whole team and all our luggage on a very small plane has been a nightmare over the years, but we’ve got that down to a little bit of an art.”
Phillips takes the equipment down by van to Ohio, easing Wray’s flight requirements.
Having a good travel agent also helps. Wray works closely with Shawn Ashton’s Sportscorp Travel, based in Bolton, Ont., which now handles all of MLS’s travel.
“They’re unbelievable,” he said.
Toronto FC likes to train in the morning and then fly, to ensure it gets its training session in rather than have a flight delay prevent practice. Usually it leaves the day before East Coast games and two days before West Coast contests. The team usually goes in the day before to locations in altitude.
Like many Canadians, they look to Air Canada first. The players like the TVs in the back of the seats. Wray likes the service and the flexibility he has in being able to change ticket names or store tickets as needed.
“Air Canada has been a great, great airline for us to use,” he said.
The frequent flyers miles are a bonus for both player and team.
Players fly coach. Those who upgrade to business or first class probably do so at their peril, with teammates chirping from the back
“I have a lot of miles so if I get upgraded, the first person I give it to is the coach,” said Wray, who clearly knows what side his bread is buttered.
“You kind of have to,” he added.
The players get their own miles on the trips. “It’s a great benefit,” said Wray.
It also helps the club. As players get higher tier status, the club doesn’t have to pay some of the baggage fees.
So a revolving player personnel door comes with travel costs as well. New players likely don’t have Air Canada status.
Unlike its Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment brethren, the Leafs and Raptors, Toronto FC rarely uses charters. MLS rules only allow four charter legs per season.
The team has tended to use that to avoid connections, usually for trips to Salt Lake City. The team doesn’t go there this year, so the charter plans are up in the year.
“We’re very fortunate. Almost all of our flights are direct. Some of the other teams in the league are experiencing much longer travel.”
Wray books the buses and hotels in each city, with help from a league list of travel partners.
“Those are a lot of fun,” he said of buses, acknowledging there have been times when the team has arrived but the bus hasn’t.
The league has stepped up its travel assistance, however. “That’s good news for me,” he said.
Clubs offer up a hotel suggestion in their cities. Other teams then book from that list, although some are limited to one chain because of a corporate partnership. Teams are also allowed a couple of “opt outs” if they don’t like the options in a city.
“They’re all over the place, to be honest. Every different brand, every different type of hotel,” he said. “But for the most part, again with the league’s help, there’s minimum standards, it’s getting a lot better.”
The MLS Players Union also signs off on the hotels.
Wray likes the West Coast trips. He loved Portland, from the hotel to the fans and game atmosphere.
“For someone who’s a fan of the sport, it was incredible,” he said.
He also gives high marks to Seattle and Vancouver. New York is also a good trip, even if the team stays in Hoboken, N.J., to be near the stadium.
Wray and his counterparts at other clubs take care of arranging practices for visiting teams. He takes a karma approach to helping other teams — what goes round comes round — so he does what he can to help.
The CONCACAF Champions League is another story.
“That is and has been an unbelievable experience for me. You have no idea what you’re walking into,” he said. “The league does not assist really in those kind of trips. So from there, it’s just a learning experience and have we ever learned over the years.”
The team sets up private security for its trips to Mexico or Central America. For teams coming the other way, it’s a different story.
“They’re out shopping and eating, living the life. When we go down to some of those countries, we’re pretty much stuck in the hotel, just waiting to get the heck out of there. Some of those trips I don’t look forward to. They are very stressful — because it is on me to make sure we’re safe, it is on me to make sure where everyone is. That we have a bus. That we have simple things that you wouldn’t even think of when you’re travelling to the MLS cities.”
“There’s a lot of unknowns. And I don’t like travelling with unknowns … The goal is to limit as many things as possible,” he added.
Thanks to MLSE, Wray can use charters on such trips which eases everything from flight times to baggage handling. The hired private security meets the team and plans the routes.
“A lot of the stuff they do I don’t even see, but they’re prepared for the worst.”
Wray also looks after bedding new players into the community. Be it real estate, pets or Ecuadorian cuisine, chances are he will be able to point you in the right direction. Thanks to Wray and his colleagues, TFC has an excellent reputation for looking after its newcomers.
If he needs help, there are plenty of people at MLSE with years of experience in knowing how to handle situations. Not to mention his own ever-expanding network. And he says his best friend is named Google.
Wray knows a happy player off the field will be more likely to excel on it.
“I actually enjoy that part of the job the most,” he said. “I’ve met so many people over the years. That was one of my goals. I even said in one of my performance reviews I want to know everybody in the city of Toronto. One day. It’s still a work in progress. But one day.”
It’s his city. He was born in Toronto and grew up in Mississauga.
“I’ve told every player and I’ll continue to tell them there’s absolutely everything you could possibly want in the city — at relative ease of reach.”
He says there is a limit to the team’s help. The goal is to get the player into the community, rather than to be at their constant beck and call.
If a player gets in trouble with the police, Wray hopes he is the first person called. It doesn’t always work that way.
“In Houston that didn’t happen,” he said, referring to a run-in last season with police by Luis Silva and the now departed Nick Soolsma and Miguel Aceval.
“Had I been the first person, you could say that I don’t think anyone would have even known about the Houston problems that we encountered.”
On his own, Wray says he is not a very good traveller. Just getting to the airport raises his blood pressure.