TORONTO—Greg Vanney isn’t going to win Major League Soccer’s coach of the year award.
He’ll be the first to admit he’s no tactical genius and that he’s had to learn on the job in 2015, his first full campaign in charge of Toronto FC who made the playoffs for the first time in franchise history with a 15-15-4 record.
Despite Toronto’s post-season berth it hasn’t been smooth sailing for Vanney. The team’s ability to defend, both individually and collectively, has been an issue all season—the Reds kept only five clean sheets and conceded a league-high 58 goals. Vanney never did find a single, tactical formation that brought consistent results. At times, TFC’s coach played Jozy Altidore out of position, struggling to shoe horn him into the starting line-up.
But there have been success stories, too. In particular, Vanney has played a prominent role in bringing the best out of midfielder Jonathan Osorio and defender Ashtone Morgan, helping the pair of Canadians to further develop and to enjoy the best years of their professional careers.
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“It’s the season that I’ve grown the most. Performance wise, it has been my best year. A lot of that has had to do with the changes at this club. Everything has come together for me under Greg, and that’s allowed me to progress as a player,” Osorio told Sportsnet.
Osorio was a key starter for the Reds last season under former coach Ryan Nelsen, scoring three goals and adding four assists in 24 games. He wasn’t happy, though, as he didn’t feel Nelsen’s counter-attacking style capitalized on his strengths, namely his deft touch on the ball and dynamic playmaking ability.
“I was frustrated because we had a good team last year but it was difficult to gel. Attacking wise it was hard because a lot of it was improvisation, so people weren’t on the same page,” Osorio said.
“With Ryan, it was however the game came then you’d have to adapt to it, whereas under Greg we make the game ourselves. We try to dictate things and force our will, not the other way around.”
Osorio talked to Vanney when he took over from Nelsen and discovered his new coach was a kindred spirit in terms of how the game should be played, with an emphasis on possession.
“He was very frustrated. For Jonathan the game is played in a certain way, and it’s a possession-oriented game. It’s a game where the ball is on the ground and it’s moving and not necessarily a high-speed transition game. Our visions of the game are aligned. How he sees the game is very similar to how I see the game and I wanted to help him get out of this state of frustration that he was functioning in,” Vanney explained.
“His frustration led to emotional detachment. And he was getting caught up in things in the game and arguing about things or yelling about things that didn’t matter. It was distracting him. Now, he’s found a nice place where he’s just playing. You can see he’s enjoying himself and that’s important for the type of player he is—that he feels good, is confident and enjoying his game.”
Osorio has played in all but four of TFC’s regular season games this season, and while his goal production is down compared to last year (he’s scored once), he’s collected a career-high seven assists. He feels more involved in the attack than ever before, and that has led to improved confidence and better performances on the pitch.
Vanney also credits Vanney with helping him to improve his tactical IQ.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Greg is tactical awareness, especially in the attack. Before I was getting myself into good spots to get the ball, but he made me realize what to do out of these good spots, how do drag players out of position, or make players have to think about me in combination with my teammates, instead of just me when we’re in possession,” Osorio explained.
Morgan is another player who has flourished under Vanney. A regular starter for Toronto in 2012 and 2013, the left fullback barely received a look from Nelsen last year, and finished the season with just three appearances and 168 minutes of playing time.
A lot of fans and media critics wrote off the Canadian, believing he couldn’t recover from a season where he plummeted to the bottom of the Reds’ defensive depth chart. But Vanney saw something in the youngster, and gave him a chance to prove himself, going so far as to shift Justin Morrow from the left side of the defence to the right in order to accommodate Morgan. The move paid off. Morgan was among Toronto’s most consistent players during the first half of the season, and played himself back into the Canadian national team fold, something that seemed unimaginable at the start of the year.
“He’s instilled some confidence in me. I think he noticed that I was lacking some of that in previous years, and he just wanted to revive me. Coming into this year he put no limits on me. He told me to just go out and have fun; he told me to enjoy my football and just get back to the player that I was. Over the course of time I got some games and minutes, and I took it full throttle,” Morgan said.
“There were some days where he had some one-on-one training sessions together. That helped me to get back where I needed to be.”
Vanney’s tactical approach also better suited Morgan’s strengths.
“He has great athleticism, he has a nice left foot, and he hits a good cross. What I had seen from him before I took over was a player who was seeking some confidence. There was some uncertainly in trying to fit him into a role that maybe wasn’t him. I think he’s got to be able to attack to be at his best, to be able to run, get up the line and get into key positions—that’s when you see the best of ash,” Vanney said.
Vanney also worked with Morgan to eliminate his propensity for earning cautions and being too aggressive in his defending.
“I wanted to get his emotions in check in terms of his challenges. He was picking up yellow cards early on, which meant he couldn’t defend the way he wanted to for the rest of the game. I wanted him to cut that stuff out and get the attacking side back into his game,” Vanney stated.
Morgan has been impressed with how Vanney has improved communication between the coaching staff and players.
“I think the communication was a little thin [under Nelsen],” Morgan admitted.
Osorio added: “I don’t think Greg gets enough credit for the job he’s done here. You can have all the expensive players you want, but if there’s not a coach there to make the team and get the team playing together it won’t matter.”