Vanney set to hit 100-game mark as Toronto FC coach

Greg Vanney is the most successful coach in Toronto FC history. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – If nothing else, Greg Vanney has proven to be a survivor during his tenure as Toronto FC coach.

Vanney will celebrate his 100th game in charge of TFC on Wednesday night when the Reds host Orlando City, an improbable feat when you consider how his coaching reign started.

Hired less than 24 hours after the firing of Ryan Nelsen, Vanney was thrown into the deep end when he took over late in the 2014 season. Although sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at the time, the Reds, with a 9-9-6 record, were trending in the wrong direction with 10 games remaining in the campaign, and were mired in a dreadful run of defensive form (26 goals against in 13 matches).

It was a baptism of fire of sorts for the first-time coach and it showed: Toronto went 2-6-2 the rest of the way and failed to make the playoffs for an eighth consecutive year. Toronto went through eight coaches in its first eight years in MLS, and the betting line was that Vanney was going to be just another coaching casualty.

Vanney, though, has not only survived, including a humiliating playoff loss to Montreal in 2015 when a large portion of the fan base was calling for his head, but he’s thrived while at the helm of TFC. Last September, he celebrated his two-year anniversary on the job – none of his predecessors lasted that long – and chances are very good that later this year he’ll have his contract extended, another first for a Toronto FC coach.

With a record of 41-36-22 in all MLS regular season and playoff, and Canadian Championship matches, Vanney is the most successful coach in team history, having led the Reds to the MLS Cup final last year. More than that, he’s become an integral figure at the club – it’s hard to imagine TFC without him, such is the influence he’s had in recruiting players and the tactical imprint he’s left on the team.

Success didn’t come immediately. Patience was required.

“When I initially took over, everything happened so fast that it was me learning a little bit more about the group that we had that first year in those 10 games, me learning a little bit about being on the field and preparing the group and working with the relationships with the guys. From there, it was developing a plan of how we were going to progress a as a group. Every day is an opportunity to learn and get better and take something away from it,” Vanney told reporters after Tuesday’s practice.

Vanney grew into the role over time, but he hasn’t stopped growing as a coach.

“Obviously, it was my first head coaching role so I probably grew more than some others. But I see this position as an opportunity to always get better, to learn every single day. Hopefully from 100 games from now I’ll be a different coach than I was in the first 100 games,” Vanney stated.

“What’s more important through this stretch is that the team has continued to improve. We’ve been on an upward trend, and if we continue on that path we’ll continue to do successful things.”

TFC SIGNS BEN SPENCER

Toronto FC announced Tuesday afternoon that it signed forward Ben Spencer.

Spencer, a 22-year-old native of New Mexico, played in four matches for TFC 2 in the USL this season. He first joined TFC 2 in 2015 on loan, and made his debut for the farm club last year.

Prior to coming to Toronto, Spencer played for Molde FK in Norway (where his coach was former Manchester United forward Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) before going out on loan with Indy Eleven of the NASL in 2014. He also featured for the U.S. U-20 team, helping the side qualify for the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.

At six-feet-five, Spencer is a natural target forward, and that’s how Vanney plans to use him.

“For me, he’s the next follow up to what Jozy [Altidore] does, which gives us a target guy, a guy we can play off of, a guy we can combined off of, a guy who isn’t necessarily looking to run into different channels, but you have a pretty good sense if where he is at, so you can find him; he can hold up the ball and use his size,” Vanney said.

Spencer has dealt with a number of injuries in his career thus far, including a torn meniscus in one knee, and a sprained medial collateral ligament in the other knee. Through it all he never lost hope, and his perseverance has paid off with an MLS contract.

“It’s a great feeling. It’s what I’ve been working towards since coming [to Toronto in 2015]. … I always had belief in myself. I always knew I’d get over it; it was just a matter of some hard work and some long days,” Spencer stated.

SCOUTING REPORT ON ORLANDO

At 6-1-0, Orlando City boasts the best record in MLS, and the second-best defensive record (five goals against) in the league.

“Defensively, they will get up close to you. They’ll get tight and be physical at times, they’re going to limit your space and time, and they’re quick in the transition,” Vanney explained.

Orlando City is also a quick team, especially in transition, led by Canadian forward Cyle Larin and Colombian midfielder Carlos Rivas. Larin has been on a hot streak, with six goals through the first seven games of the season.

The key to stopping Larin, according to Vanney, is cutting off service to him and limiting his space when he does get the ball.

“If he has a weakness it’s creating his own shot. A lot of his opportunities come off of service, his good runs off of the ball, him getting to spots first, him out-muscling guys. It’s important that we control all of those positons when balls get into service areas; that we control his runs when he’s trying to get out into these runs behind us,” Vanney explained.

Wednesday’s game also marks a reunion of sorts for Canadian midfielder Will Johnson, who joined Orlando as a free agent in the off-season after spending the 2016 campaign with Toronto.

“The team has a bit of his personality in terms of the way they compete and fight. …. He, as captain, has done very well in pushing that group. They use him in a number of different positions and he’s done well in all of those. He’s a good part of why they’ve been so successful,” Vanney offered.

INJURY UPDATES

French defender Chris Mavinga is available for selection again after being sidelined for several weeks with a quad strain. Drew Moor (irregular heartbeat) should be back in full training over the next few days, and could return to action next week.

The first decade of Toronto FC in the words of the players, coaches, executives and fans who built the franchise.