TFC coach Vanney: ‘I’m totally obsessed with the game’

TFC

Toronto FC's General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko, left, and coach Greg Vanney. (Chris Young/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 wouldn’t still be around when he took over from Ryan Nelsen on Aug. 31, 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 subject. In part one, Vanney talked about his coaching influences, his reflections on the MLS Cup final loss, how he balances his family and professional life, and much more.

In part two, below, Vanney discusses his working relationship with GM Tim Bezbatchenko, which TFC player reminds him the most of himself, his future at the club, and more.

There are a lot of similarities between the United States and Canada, and between Americans and Canadians. But there are also a lot of differences, too. How has living and working in Canada for this long changed your world view?
I’ll back track, because my world view changed when I played for Bastia, and I was in France for a few years. That was the first time. I’ve had the fortune as a member of the U.S. national team to travel to Central America, South America, Asia, Europe, all different places, and see a lot of the world and experience a lot of different cultures and ideologies. For me, Canada has been another in those experiences.

Canada does have a slightly different culture than the U.S. My experience up here is that people are generally friendlier, that they’re more accepting of one another, more tolerant, and more pragmatic. For us, just having conversations about some things, especially in the school system, we’ve been able to have real conversations about our kids and what our kids need, and we’ve received good responses from the schools. My parents were both educators, and my dad tells me that in the U.S. everything has moved away from that – that you have to follow a certain protocol and whatever the rules are, and you can’t get outside of that. So, we’ve had a better experience in Canada in that way.

We really love being in Canada. It’s a fantastic place to raise kids. Kids can still run free on the streets. The things we use to do in the U.S. when we were kids, I feel like we it can still happen here a little bit more than it can in the States. We have a great appreciation for that.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s a stronger media presence and interest here in Toronto compared to most MLS cities. As a result, you’re under far more scrutiny here than you would be in, say, Columbus or Dallas. How much do you take notice of what we in the press do? Have you been treated fairly by the Toronto media?
I don’t take a ton of notice. I think my relationship with you guys has been good. I think people are allowed to be critical. I don’t always agree. I don’t read a ton of stuff because I think while people are entitled to their views, they still only have a small fraction of information of what goes on here on a day-to-day basis. To get too caught up in opinions that don’t have all the information is to get distracted from what is really happening. I think a lot of times the media takes a short-term view when there might be a longer-term idea that’s in play.

You and I have had conversations over the years when I’ve thought something [you’ve written] was unfair, and we had a conversation that I thought was very respectful both ways. So, I don’t have any complaints [about the media]. The scrutiny is there, and I get that, but it’s not a major issue what people think about me at the end of the day. What matters to me is what my team thinks of me, and that there’s a mutual respect. I’ll give everybody respect – doesn’t matter if it’s the media or whoever – as much as I can in the hopes that that respect will be reciprocated.

People have said a lot of things to me about how tough the media is here. But you have to also look back at the history of this organization and understand that people were tired of what was going on and were expecting more, and that’s fair. Our job was to be better, and I think if you can be better than people will have good things to say about you. That’s the way it goes.

TFC is close to breaking the record for most points in a season held by 1998 L.A. Galaxy. Do you think you’ll win MLS coach of the year for 2018?
You tell me. [laughs] That’s up for everybody else to decide. I mean, fair enough, we’re the first-place team in MLS and by a pretty good margin, and we’ve had a good run this season. I don’t think too much about it. I’m really only concerned about the next game, and then the next game after that, and then the next one, and then preparing for the post-season. I know at the end of the day a lot of people will measure our playoff performances as an important aspect of this season. So, coach of the year, it doesn’t matter. It’s a wonderful accolade that is bestowed upon our players and our entire staff, not just one person. If I won I’d be grateful and accept it, but we have to keep winning games and prepare for our playoff run.

Is that how the team has to be judged this season, on whether or not it wins MLS Cup?
Ultimately, you get judged based on your ability to win a championship or not. But I don’t think anyone would dispute how good this team is, and the season they are putting together so far. There seems to be an ongoing debate if this is the best team in the history of the MLS regular season, but what people remember is who lifts the cup at the end of it. People don’t talk about the 1998 L.A. Galaxy team except for now all of a sudden. But before that nobody ever really talked about them because they didn’t win the championship. We all recognize that to really leave a true legacy you have to win MLS Cup.

Is there a player on this roster that most reminds you of you?
[laughs] Oh, that’s a tough question. [long pause] Maybe it might be Drew Moor, a guy who is a leader, but doesn’t have to be the captain all the time, a guy who is thinking and processing the game. I would say I was more obsessed with the game than Drew might be [laughs]. He’s quiet, he goes about his business in a quiet way, and I was kind of similar.

 
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You became the first TFC coach in history to earn a contract extension, signing your new deal in mid-July. I have to think there would have been other teams interested had you not re-signed. Did you give any thought to seeing out this year and then exploring your options in the off-season? Was that ever a consideration?
No, not really. [The contract talks] were more about if we can both get to where we’re both happy, then I never wanted to go anywhere else. I truly believe this is the best club in the league. In terms of our fan base, our team, our setting, the best is yet to come from this group. I want to be here for that challenge, and I want to be here everything to come to fruition. There isn’t anywhere else that I want to be, so it hadn’t really crossed my mind.

How important to you was it that GM Tim Bezbatchenko also signed a new deal? What’s the working relationship like between you and Bez?
It was paramount to me that Tim re-signed, and to be fair they worked out Tim’s deal before mine, so I knew that was in play before I got involved too much in my discussions. Ultimately, to achieve the pinnacle of success, whatever that might end up being, there has to be a collaborative and respectful relationship in which everybody at the top sees the things the same way. That’s been one of the biggest challenges of this organization for years until [Tim and I] came around – that there were to many opinions, too many different ideas, too many agendas, too many different directions, and you can never find success if everybody is pulling in a different direction.

Tim and I didn’t know each other well before coming together, but we hit it off pretty quickly, and we realized we have a lot of respect for what the other does, and for each other’s knowledge of the game and vision for the game, and expertise in the space that we occupy. Tim’s knowledge of the league and how to get the most out of the salary cap is great, and how he sees and wants the team to play is very much in line with my thoughts. When we talk about players, we have a very good relationship – he’ll come to me and ask me what type of player we should be looking for, and I’ll guide that process. He’s very good and evaluating players.

Between us, and [club president Bill Manning], everything is a discussion, but everybody’s input is respected, and we come to a mutual decision. Because of that, I think we’ve been able to make some very good player decisions. Not all of them have been perfect. We’ve obviously had some turn out not the way we hoped. Some of those early decisions in our tenure were more reactive, where now our scouting department is more mature. With Bill coming in, we’ve created this three-pronged approach where we don’t always agree, but we get to a conclusion that we’re all happy with.

You put in a lot of hard work as coach of TFC, both on and off the field. Are you having fun? Are you able to take a moment to just enjoy the success you’ve had so far this season?
I love it. I’m workaholic, and I’m totally obsessed with the game, and I’m obsessed with the idea of being successful with a healthy amount of fear of being not successful. So, those two things drive me. Not being successful, I don’t fear that because I want accolades – I want to be successful because I always want to challenge the status quo of what people think is good enough. My challenge is to always keep pushing the boundaries, and keep getting better myself, and then being able to challenge everybody around me to get better. I’m obsessed with that.

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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