Vanney: I want our players to spill their blood for Toronto FC

Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney (Julie Jacobson/CP)

Quick show of hands: Who honestly thought Greg Vanney would last this long as head coach of Toronto FC when he was first handed the job?

One can hardly be blamed for thinking that Vanney would still be around when he took over from Ryan Nelsen on Sept. 2014. His inexperience — this was his first head coaching gig, having only previously served as an assistant at Chivas USA — and TFC’s history of hiring and firing coaches suggested that Vanney would eventually become another managerial casualty.

It didn’t quite work out that way, though.

Vanney, 43, is Toronto FC’s longest-serving and most successful coach, having won back-to-back Canadian Championships and having guided the team to last year’s MLS Cup final. He’s also the first coach in franchise history to earn a second contract – he signed a new deal in July.

On the occasion of his three-year anniversary, Vanney sat down for a lengthy, one-on-one chat with Sportsnet to discuss a variety of subjects, including: his coaching influences, his reflections on the MLS Cup final loss, how he balances his family and professional life, and much more.

Part 1 is below. To read part 2, CLICK HERE

Three years ago on Friday, you replaced Ryan Nelsen as head coach. How does it feel to celebrate such an anniversary? How has the time gone by for you?
In hindsight, it’s been pretty quick. But when you’re actually going through it, nothing is ever that quick. I’m very happy with our trajectory, and where we’ve been able to get to so far. There’s always more to keep pushing for and achieving, and new levels to stride for. But it’s been a great process, not without its challenges along the way. We’re in an exciting stretch right now with a team that is in good form and that has a lot of quality, and I hope that in three months that can lead us to a championship.

How have you grown into the role as TFC coach over time?
A lot. You come into a situation like I did with thoughts and ideas of how things can look like or how you can help improve things. But it’s a process of learning every single day. If you’re open-minded, if your eyes and ears are open, and if you don’t have too big of an ego and are able to listen to everything that’s being said around you, and you’re able to decipher what’s important, then it’s hard not to learn in an environment like this. For me, it’s always been about myself getting better so I can then challenge the team to get better. That’s been our relationship.

From a management perspective, I think I’ve come along in terms of real clarity and being more specific on what I want from the team and what I want from each individual player. The day-to-day stuff, I’ve simplified a little bit, and stopped trying to overdo somethings, and instead find the things that work for our team and stick with them. I’ve grown in terms of getting to know the players better, in terms of their physical workloads and what each of them needs to do to be at their best.

The team you inherited in 2014 is vastly different from the current side. Obviously, the quality and depth of talent has vastly improved. But what other factors can we attribute to the team’s transformation into one of the best sides in MLS?
There’s a lot of hard work that’s gone into it that the majority of people don’t see. It feels like I live here [at the team’s Downsview training facility]. There’s a lot of time and sacrifice that everybody puts into it. It’s a challenge on a daily basis to always be thinking about what things do we need to improve on, what direction are we going in, short- and long-term planning. It’s a constant dialogue and collaboration and debate with the staff – we all have the same vision for what we want to look like, but we don’t necessarily have the same opinions all the time. So, there’s a lot of discussion within our group to continue to find ways to push our team forward.

We’re here a lot, in terms of planning and preparing our training sessions so that all of them are meaningful for our guys. I don’t think Michael or Sebastian or Jozy would be too happy to come out to training sessions if they felt they weren’t being challenged. These are things that we think about all the time, and there’s a bunch of stuff that people never see – the constant scouting, communicating with guys to make sure they are in good places, not just within our team but within their personal lives, that they’re happy. For me, it’s about knowing as much as I need to know about each of our guys to try to keep them in place where they feel part of the team and invested, and wanted, and ready to spill their blood every time they step onto the field.

Further to that, how challenging is it to keep everybody happy? This is an incredibly deep squad. There are guys who don’t play a lot, and some probably they feel they should. What’s it like for you to go to a player the day before a game and tell him he’s not going to start, or won’t be in the 18-man roster?
Honestly, it’s one of the hardest parts of the job. Number one is finding the ways to progress our team to get better. That’s number one. Within that, trying keep players motivated and trying to keep them ready at all times to perform is such an important part of the job. My approach on all of that is to be forthright and honest, and let everybody know where they’re at any given time. Some of the guys probably grow tired of hearing from me because I try, probably more than I need to, to keep the lines of communication open, and let them know where they’re at. Whenever I make a decision I try to share with them the logic of the decision so that they don’t think it’s just me pulling things out of thin air, that there’s actually a thought process behind it. They may not always agree with it, but there is a thought process behind it, and I want them to understand it. They’ve responded well to it – they’re treated like men, and they can respect that.

You played under both Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid, and you’ve previously talked about their influence on you as a coach. What did you learn from Gerard Gili when you played for him at Bastia in the French league? Is there anything you picked up from him that you apply to your coaching career today?
In the early days of MLS when I was playing, the league wasn’t nearly as tactical as it is now. I had a much more thorough introduction to tactics when I went to France and played for Gili. Bastia was a small club in a big league, and our roster wasn’t as good as Bordeaux’s, and Monaco’s and PSG’s and Lyon’s. So, organization, understanding of roles, how a system functions – these are all things that he was pretty thorough on. We would work on those dynamics and prepare for each match to try to get something out of it, based largely on what we were trying to do as a team, rather than on our opponent.

For me, it was an interesting learning experience just in terms of the week-to-week preparation from a tactical perspective, but also the larger vision of tactics. That was one of my first experiences in the larger view of how all the pieces connect in a system. It got me thinking, and as someone who knew he was eventually going into coaching, it was something I learned more and more about during my time there. That was my first introduction into the idea of the collective tactical preparation of a team from a system standpoint.

 
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Do you still think about the shootout loss to Seattle in last year’s MLS Cup?
Yeah. Obviously, there’s the disappointment of we had a team that was in very good form and playing at home, and it was missed opportunity. Over time, I’ve utilized that as motivation to try to push the team forward. I’ve used it to think about how I approach games, not just the day of the game and the in-game decisions, but also the week leading up to the game. I’ve reflected on those things; should we get a chance to get back there, I’ve thought about, is there anything you can take away from that game now to start preparing our team further in advance.

Your mom died back in April. You previously opened up to me about the difficult life she had – how she was involved in a terrible car crash when you were four, and how your family really had to come together to care for her in the ensuing decades. How much did that experience shape you into the person you are today?
I was pretty young when a lot of that happened. When it happened, I was sent to Virginia to stay with relatives [Vanney grew up in Arizona], so I wasn’t really involved in much of it for the first few months. After that, I came back and there were the surgeries and a lot of pain that my mom had to deal with, but I was still young, so I just tried to bring empathy and help out as much as I could.

Hopefully, that’s one of the things that I bring into our locker-room, that I care for each of the guys, and I have a fair amount of patience and understanding in working with them in difficult scenarios. I don’t know if that’s a product of what it was like for me as a kid after the accident, or if that’s a product of me being like my mom – she was a kindergarten teacher, so she was very patient. As a kid, I was always driven to be a soccer player, and I remember being four and telling my parents I was going to buy them a corvette one day when I became a pro player. [laughs]

You’re married and a father of four young children. This is a time-consuming job that can also be mentally exhausting. How do you balance your family life with your professional life?
If I’m honest, there’s been a lot of times over my career when I haven’t balanced the two very well, and my wife has been very quick to put me into my place and to remind me when I’m not. Now that our kids are a little bit older, the boys play here [at the TFC academy]. If they didn’t, I wouldn’t have a good balance, because when they come up [to the training facility] with me and they’re here, I try to use that time to watch videos while they’re playing. My wife knows that they’re up here with me, so that allows her to take our daughter to gymnastics and do other things. We divide and conquer that way. But having them here also allows me to have more time with them. My wife will come up here often and hang out, so even though we aren’t at home together, we can be here as a family. Soccer dominates our lives, no matter what. The vast majority of our time is based around soccer. We’re out of balance if we try to compare that to anything else we do in life, but our time spent together is quality time. I’ve gotten better at that, and as the kids have gotten older, it’s been easier because they’ve grown more independent.

My wife and I have been together since high school, so she’s been involved in this process all along the way. She’s learned to find her space in all of this, and now that we’ve been in Toronto for a few years, she has her own friends and her things she can do independently. In one sense, it’s almost been more important that she finds the balance between being a mom and being there for our kids and being around soccer, but also finding some time for herself. She’s been able to do that better than ever in the last year to 18 months.

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How do you unwind? What do you do for fun? For instance, TFC doesn’t have a game this weekend. What are your plans? Would you turn to Amy and say, ‘Let’s get in the car and take the kids camping?’
[laughs] We might do that. Sometimes, we might jump in the car and go somewhere else. Sometimes we’ll go into different parts of the city and walk around. Sometimes we’ll go to Toronto island and explore, wander around. With four kids and a dog, it’s not always easy to get away. But we’ve been up north to Muskoka quite a bit. The kids love it up there, and they love to play in the lake. That’s something we talked about doing this weekend, but it looks like it’s going to rain. Plus, on Monday everybody is going to be returning for the start of school, so I don’t want to deal with that traffic. We’re still in discussion. [laughs]

You used to play soccer and now you’re a coach. I’m sure your young sons must look at you with a certain amount of awe, to say nothing of the fact that when they come up here they get to kick the ball around with Michael Bradley and the players. How do you and Amy keep them grounded? Do you have a hard time convincing them that you’re just a regular guy?
They still very much just see me as ‘dad.’ In the last six months, more than any other time period, they’re starting to reconcile a little bit that what I do is more in the public eye, and that people know me more than maybe the average person. They’re starting to grasp that. But at the end of the day, they just see me as their dad.

In terms of keeping them grounded, my wife is extraordinary at that. We’re both pretty strict in terms of discipline, keeping them focused on the things they need to be focused on, and respect for other people. These are major things in our household. They have a pretty good grasp on what my wife and I are trying to impart to them. We get a fair number of compliments from other parents about how our kids are so good with other kids and how thoughtful they are, and that’s one of the proudest things as a parent. That’s a big tribute to my wife.

NOTE: In part two of our discussion, Greg Vanney talks about his working relationship with GM Tim Bezbatchenko, which TFC player reminds him the most of himself, his future at the club, and more.

Look for part two of my Q&Q with Greg Vanney on Saturday morning at Sportsnet.ca.

TFC Pitchside will provide Toronto FC supporters with an inside look into their favourite obsession Monday nights at 11 pm ET on Sportsnet 590 The FAN. Call it an all-access pass for all things MLS brought to you by co-hosts Dan Riccio, Thomas Michalakos and producer Amil Delic. You'll hear from the biggest names around the club, and the MLS. You'll also get reviews and previews of every TFC game with reports from Pitchside at training and on game days at BMO Field. The Six is about to get done!

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