TFC coach Vanney and the broadcast career that never was

Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney. (Nathan Denette/CP)

TORONTO – Saturday’s game between Toronto FC and the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field isn’t just a highly anticipated rematch of last year’s MLS Cup final — it’s also a homecoming of sorts for TFC coach Greg Vanney.

You see, Vanney used to work for the Sounders. Yep, you read that right. Vanney has a close association with the team that broke his and TFC’s heart in that dramatic penalty shootout at BMO Field last December.

Long before leading the Reds to within a penalty kick of winning the MLS Cup, Vanney served as a colour analyst on television broadcasts during the Sounders’ inaugural Major League Soccer season in 2009.

A long-time MLS defender who played for LA, Colorado, D.C. and Dallas, Vanney retired from the game in 2008. He was working with a youth academy near his home in Arizona when the Sounders gave him a call and asked if he’d be interested in doing some television work.

“I was uncertain about it because I hadn’t spent a lot of time in front of the camera doing that kind of thing. But I wanted to stay involved in the league, I wanted to keep seeing what teams were doing and keeping track of things…. So it was my opportunity to stay involved in MLS and connected to it. That was my in,” Vanney recalled in a one-on-one chat with Sportsnet.

Vanney was paired with play-by-play announcer Kevin Calabro to work on broadcasts for FSN Northwest and Kong-TV. Calabro was the long-time voice of the former Seattle SuperSonics NBA franchise. Calabro was a “big name,” but he didn’t know soccer.

“The joke between us, I said to him, ‘Greg, you know practically nothing about broadcasting, and I know practically nothing about soccer. What could go wrong?’” Calabro quipped. “It was a perfect match.”

Vanney worked on about “20 to 24 games that year,” calling matches with both Calabro and Arlo White, who is now the lead play-by-play voice of NBC Sports’ live coverage of the Premier League in the United States.

It was a hectic time for Vanney. He had a growing family with newborn twins and three kids under the age of five, and he was splitting his time between his youth-academy job and his television work.

“I often flew in the day of the [Sounders] game or late the night before, so we didn’t have a lot of time together where Kevin could really teach me the ropes — a lot of it was on the fly. But he was very patient with me, and gave advice to me along the away. I enjoyed working with Kevin because he was a true professional and a great guy,” Vanney said.

It was a two-way street between the broadcast partners, with Calabro coaching Vanney on the finer points of television, and Vanney educating Calabro on soccer.

“Without question, Greg was a big help to me. He explained in some pretty simple terms some very complex methods, strategies and so forth. I had a rudimentary knowledge of the game and what they were trying to achieve on the field, but he certainly added and complemented that with his expertise,” Calabro said.

Calabro was a “good student,” recalled Vanney.

“He was very open to it. Even through the course of the game, he’d tell me if I heard things or terms that were wrong to let him know. Kevin used to use the word ‘edge’ – ‘the player got around the edge,’ which isn’t necessarily a soccer term. We were trying to help each other out along the way. I was the soccer guy and he was the broadcast guy, so in many ways we were a good pairing,” Vanney offered.

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The Sounders were not a typical expansion franchise in 2009; they weren’t starting from scratch, as they had played in lower-tiered leagues for several seasons before entering MLS. There was also a rich history of professional soccer in Seattle, with a previous incarnation of the Sounders competing in the old North American Soccer League, the forerunner to MLS, from 1974 to 1983. Seattle was ready for big-time soccer again, and the city embraced the new MLS club during that first season.

“It was a fun year. It was a really exciting season because they hit the ground running in terms of support. For me and Kevin, it was a really exciting time to be a part of that organization,” Vanney said. “You’re calling games with 40 and 50,000 fans in the stands, and big TV audiences, so for me I felt like it was a very important gig at the time; it was the start of what became a very important franchise in MLS.”

Calabro was struck by Vanney’s easy-going demeanour – “He didn’t take himself too seriously” – and how he was never flustered on air.

“Greg had terrific understanding of the players, and I think that was the most important part of his involvement in the broadcast — to educate the fans and me on players within MLS, the teams within MLS and the structure of MLS. Having only retired the year before, he had the book on all of these guys, what they could and couldn’t do and he imparted that to our audience,” said Calabro, who now works as the television play-by-play voice for the Portland Trail Blazers.

Alas, the partnership lasted only one year. Work and family commitments, not to mention the travel, put a great deal of stress on Vanney’s life. He and the Sounders mutually agreed to part company at the end of the season.

Still, Vanney looks back at his brief broadcasting career with a great deal of fondness.

“The feedback I got from fans in terms of the information I gave was good and that it was insightful. In terms of my ability as a broadcaster, I’m sure fans had a different view,” Vanney joked.

“I didn’t think I had a long-term career in broadcasting ahead of me, and I wanted to get into coaching. But that one season was a great experience, and a lot of fun.”

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

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