TORONTO – Don’t let Greg Vanney’s easy-going demeanour fool you.
Toronto FC‘s coach cuts a mid-mannered and soft-spoken figure in public, but underneath that thoughtful veneer lies a ruthless streak.
With his team leading 2-1 in the 61st minute against Minnesota United FC on Saturday, Vanney was about to sub off an injured Nick Hagglund and bring on fellow defender Justin Morrow. When Minnesota levelled the score from the penalty spot, Vanney promptly told Morrow to sit back down on the bench, and instead he brought on Spanish midfielder Victor Vazquez to replace Hagglund and bolster the attack.
Saturday’s contest was the Reds’ fifth in 16 days. TFC entered this match riding a five-game winning run, their previous victory coming less than 72 hours earlier in Columbus. A draw against Minnesota would have been a perfectly acceptable result, and nobody could have rightly faulted Vanney had he decided to lock things down and settle for a point.
But in Vanney’s mind a draw wasn’t enough. Not playing for the win, even with his team at the end of gruelling part of its schedule, entered his mind. So, instead of playing it safe, Vanney went for it, and he was duly rewarded when Canadian Tosaint Ricketts got onto the end of a Jozy Altidore cross floated into the box and nodded it home in the 77th minute to guide the Reds to a 3-2 victory.
Asked post-game about his decision to send on an attacking player in place of an injured defender after Minnesota just tied things up, Vanney replied, “Does one point do us a ton of good or does going for three points do us [more] good?”
In other words, why would he even consider not going for the win?
It’s that kind of fearless and aggressive approach that has served Vanney well during the Reds’ current six-game winning streak, a franchise-best.
Last year’s run to the MLS Cup was remarkable, but as strong as that team was, this season’s incarnation of TFC is better. There is more depth, more quality and more balance across the roster.
There has also been an attitude adjustment, a swagger and confidence that was only bubbling under the surface last season. That’s not to say there wasn’t a winning mentality with the Reds in 2016. There was. But now it is much stronger and amplified, and it’s been on full display as Toronto has firmly established itself the pace-setter in MLS through the first 10 weeks of the 2017 campaign. The players know they can go all the way, buoyed by the fact that they came within a penalty kick of lifting the MLS Cup trophy last December. That bitter loss to Seattle didn’t break their spirit, it emboldened it.
This TFC side carries itself with a heightened belief that it can win any game and that, in fact, it expects to win every game. That’s in large part to Vanney, who sets the tone with his tactics, his personnel decisions and his management of the team on and off the field. He exudes quiet confidence. The players feed off of that on the pitch, and Toronto’s place atop the overall MLS standings speaks for itself.
“It was a day where we just needed to find a way to win. Not a perfect afternoon, and not how we would have drawn it up,” captain Michael Bradley said after the Minnesota game.
“But the part I liked the most was when the game was on the line in the last 25 to 30 minutes, we went for it. Even on a day when things weren’t perfect, we found a way to push and go for it, and go for it in a way where there was only going to be one team walking away with three points.”
The magnitude of what Vanney, in concert with general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, have accomplished over the past two seasons in completely changing the culture of this once troubled franchise can’t be overstated.
While Bezbatchenko has quietly built one of the sturdiest teams in MLS, Vanney has moulded and shaped TFC into a championship-calibre side, no matter which 11 players take to the pitch.
“I think we have an incredibly deep side with guys who are capable of starting on a lot of teams around this league that don’t always get to start for us. … We have a good team that can win on any day regardless of who I put out there,” Vanney said.
That might sound pretty brash and bold from the TFC coach. But the manner in which he delivered that view during Saturday’s post-match press conference tells you all you need to know about Vanney. There wasn’t a trace of arrogance in his voice, or a puffing out of his chest. He simply said in a deliberate manner as if it were a matter of fact.
Vanney believes it, and his players believe it – and that has made all the difference for Toronto FC so far this season.