Greg Vanney's revolution transformed Toronto FC into MLS juggernaut

Outgoing Toronto FC manager Greg Vanney says an emotional goodbye on a Zoom chat, after making the hard decision to step down from his role with the club.

When you walk through the front doors of Toronto FC’s multi-million dollar training facility in the northern part of the city, the first thing you notice is the trophy cabinet.

It’s carved into the wall of the players’ lounge and looks out over the main foyer, with the titles "Canadian Championship," "MLS Cup" and "CONCACAF Champions League" prominently printed above the individual glass cabinets.

When he was appointed club president in 2015, Bill Manning, who held the same role with Real Salt Lake where he won an MLS Cup in 2009, knew that TFC was a franchise still in the middle of a major rebuild after years of mismanagement and dysfunction.

Still, one of the first things Manning did was order the construction of the trophy cabinet. It was a bold move, considering TFC’s history of futility through its first eight MLS seasons. The timing also smacked of pure delusion and hubris – the Reds were coming off an embarrassing 3-0 road loss to the Montreal Impact in their playoff debut a mere two weeks after Manning was hired.

Some scoffed at the trophy cabinet, but coach Greg Vanney got it. He shared in Manning’s belief that if TFC was going to win championships, then it had to start feeling and acting like a championship team. All the players and coaching staff needed a constant reminder of what was at stake, so the trophy cabinet went up almost immediately upon Manning’s orders. Now, it was Vanney’s job to help fill it.

"Everybody here knows why they’re here, and committed to filling up the trophy cases, and hopefully creating a longstanding successful club at TFC," Vanney told this reporter on the eve of the 2017 MLS Cup final.

The next day, Toronto beat Seattle on a frigid night at BMO Field to win the MLS championship, exacting revenge for their loss to the Sounders in the previous year’s final. It was one of many trophies the club won during Vanney’s hugely successful tenure in Toronto, which came to a surprising end on Monday when he announced he was stepping down after six years.

TFC won an MLS Cup (and were twice-beaten finalists), three Canadian Championships and a Supporters’ Shield (in 2017, when they set the record for most points in a season), and came achingly close to winning the Concacaf Champions League, losing in a heartbreaking penalty shootout in the 2018 finals.

Along the way, Vanney was named MLS and Concacaf coach of the year, deservedly earning the nickname "The Gregfather" – the master who pulled the strings for one of the most successful clubs in MLS history.

Indeed, Vanney built an MLS team that became the envy of the rest of the league. Working in lockstep with former GM Tim Bezbatchenko, Vanney assembled a formidable side on the pitch for whom winning became the norm and championships were expected – it was a far cry from the team that failed to qualify for the playoffs in its first eight seasons and went through eight coaches before Vanney came aboard.

To be sure, the resources and wealth of club owners MLSE played a big role. It allowed Vanney to construct one of the most expensive rosters in MLS history. Being able to lure players the calibre of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore while in their prime was a result of MLSE greenlighting TFC’s league-high payroll. But TFC owed its success to much more than just money.

Vanney and Bezbatchenko were astute judges of talent and had a knack for unearthing true gems – like influential Spanish creator Victor Vazquez (who was toiling in Mexico at the time) and young midfielder Marky Delgado (who TFC picked up for nothing when Chivas USA folded). Draft pick Alex Bono became the team’s starting goalkeeper in only his second season. The shrewd free-agent signings of MLS veterans and experienced internationals such as Drew Moor and Benoit Cheyrou paid off handsomely.

Vanney was also a teacher, someone who gained a lifetime of wisdom during his playing career in MLS and in France, and for the U.S. national team. He imparted his vast learnings to his young players and challenged them to play outside their comfort zone. Canadian Jonathan Osorio, in particular, flourished under Vanney’s mentorship, transforming from an under-achiever into one of the league’s best midfielders. Vanney leaves behind an institutional knowledge that is firmly engrained into the fabric of the club.

Before Vanney’s arrival, nobody wanted to come to Toronto. Prospective Designated Player candidates from abroad had their hearts set on going to L.A. or New York, and it was a death sentence for a domestic player’s career to be traded to the Reds. Things have since changed. Vanney played a pivotal role in transforming TFC into a well-run machine behind the scenes – other MLS clubs look to copy their model, and Toronto is near the top of the list of teams that players want to play for in MLS.

In essence what Vanney helped lead at Toronto FC was a revolution within the organization, a total cultural change from top to bottom that turned the team on its ear and shifted the league’s powerbase to north of the border. He inherited a franchise that was considered a laughingstock when he took over the job as a rookie coach midway through the 2014 season and turned them into MLS champions within three years.

Aside from being a teacher, Vanney is also a student, always looking to learn and expand his knowledge base, always looking for new challenges. And that, in part, led to his decision to leave.

"I believe soccer — and this profession — is about a journey," Vanney told reporters on Monday. "And in this journey we have different experiences. We try to learn in every step and in every relationship along the way. And I’ve taken every ounce of what I can from this experience, and I think it’s time for myself and my family to move on and take our lessons here and, at the right time, try to apply them somewhere else and have a whole new set of things to learn, and just keep growing as a person."

He’s gone now, and another team will soon benefit from his expertise. But there’s no denying the enormous legacy Greg Vanney left behind at Toronto FC, both on and off the pitch.

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