Toronto FC coach Vanney: ‘We’re rewriting history’


Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney. (Michelle Siu/CP)

TORONTO—For a coach who took over one of the hottest hot seats in Major League Soccer, Toronto FC’s Greg Vanney has expertly maintained his cool over the past 12 months.

When interacting with players, his staff and the reporters who regularly cover his team, Vanney has a fatherly way about him—not surprising, as he’s a father of four, including Christian, an energetic and cute-as-a-bug three-year-old who’s become a fixture at the team’s practices and in the locker room after home games. Firm but fair, Vanney talks to people—not down to them as his predecessor Ryan Nelsen had a habit of doing—and always seems eager to engage in meaningful dialogue with anyone he encounters.

“Remind me to have a conversation with you later. I want to talk about your spacing when we’re in possession,” Vanney told Jonathan Osorio after a recent training session, putting his arm around the midfielder’s shoulder.

This is Greg Vanney.

The 41-year-old native of Virginia—a former MLS star and U.S. international during his playing career—is thoughtful and engaging, and he’s been a calming force at a club renowned for its dysfunction. Formerly the club’s youth academy director, Vanney celebrated his one-year anniversary as TFC coach on Monday, and looks poised to lead the Reds to a historic, first-ever playoff berth.

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Let’s not kid ourselves: a lot of that success has to do with Sebastian Giovinco, and it’s downright scary to think where TFC would be right now without the mercurial Italian (he has 17 goals and 13 assists in 25 games). Still, Vanney has shaped a disparate group of players—ranging from DPs and international stars to MLS journeymen and depth guys—into a cohesive unit.

There have been failures, most notably the Warren Creavalle experiment at right fullback, and the club boasts a losing record in MLS (13-17-6) since he took the reins from Nelsen. But there have also been a number of success stories. Under Vanney’s tenure, left fullback Ashtone Morgan has enjoyed an incredible renaissance (pretty amazing when you consider where he was last season) and Osorio has become one of the best Canadian players in all of MLS. TFC has also tied the franchise record for wins in a single season with Vanney at the helm in 2015.

Most important, the club currently sits fourth in the Eastern Conference (the top six make the playoffs) with an 11-10-4 record. They are nine points clear of the playoff line, and six of their remaining nine games are at home. Barring a catastrophe, Toronto will qualify for the post-season, and they might even host a playoff game.

So, what’s the past year been like for Vanney?

“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Some of it has been easy; some of it has been not so easy. … But I feel now we have an interesting roster with a lot of options that has taken its shape over the course of the past 12 months,” Vanney said this week.

“I think we have some really talented players, between bringing Sebastian in and bringing Jozy [Altidore] in, and the additions of Benoit [Cheyrou] and a number of other guys—we’re really good from that standpoint.”

He later added: “I think we’ve come a long way [in the past year], both with the first team and with the club and the academy and our philosophy on things. For me, it’s been an incredible 12 months, and I really look forward to really interesting and great things in the future.”

Vanney talks as though he’s going to be in charge for some time, which is a pretty bold move considering TFC’s track record of hiring and firing coaches. Vanney is the Reds’ ninth manager in nine seasons—and none of those who came before him lasted more than 18 months.

But Vanney insists he doesn’t get caught up in whether his “time is coming or not coming,” and stresses that only bad things can come from operating out of fear.

“I will continue to work on the club from top to bottom and spend most of my waking hours—and you can ask my wife—concentrating or thinking about the club and how we can continue to get better and move forward,” Vanney promised.

He’s also left a favourable impression on general manager Tim Bezbatchenko, who took a chance in hiring a relatively inexperienced coach—Vanney was an assistant at Chivas USA, his only previous coaching experience at senior level.

“Teams tend to get found out in July. You have one system and one way of playing and over the course of the season things happen and people learn about you. Everybody is watching everybody’s games,” Bezbatchenko said earlier this summer.

“The best coaches are the ones that have success over the years by adjusting, can make tactical changes, and are not just reliant on personnel changes. That’s what you have to do in a salary cap world, and Greg has shown a tremendous ability to make adjustments from game to game and during games. There’s not many coaches in the league who can do that.”

If leading the Reds to the playoffs tops Vanney’s priority list then changing the culture of losing that has engulfed this franchise ranks a very close second. We all know the club’s spotted history: the coaching merry-go-round, the false dawns, the star players who didn’t pan out, the general MLSE mismanagement. To call the previous eight years at TFC chaotic doesn’t quite do it justice to capture the whole mess.

Vanney is tired of hearing about that, and establishing a new culture—one predicated on winning and consistency—remains an ongoing project, and the toughest part of his job.

“We have the history that is behind us that everybody wants to remind you of [whenever things go bad]. It’s always weighing on people and they’re quick to say, ‘Ah, here we go again.’ We’re trying to take that big step forward that says that’s not us anymore. That history is no longer us; we’re rewriting the history of who we are and who are are going to be,” Vanney stated.

“We know that we have things to prove but we’re going to do that. For me, it’s just about establishing the culture of greatness here and believing in it.”

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