TORONTO – Greg Vanney casually shuffles into the media work room at Toronto FC’s training centre and pulls up a chair as though he’s going to have a few beers with an old friend, rather than face the ensuing interrogation from this correspondent.
For a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders at the moment, Vanney appears calm and completely at ease, and shows no signs of strain or stress on his face. But don’t be fooled – Vanney is under no illusions about the situation.
Simply put, it’s looking dire for Toronto FC when it comes to the post-season picture. The Reds sit ninth out of 11 teams in the Eastern Conference, nine points and three spots back of the Montreal Impact, who hold down the sixth and final playoff berth in the East. Realistically, the margin for error is minuscule, and TFC likely has to win all seven of its remaining games (or at the very least six of them) to have any chance of qualifying for the playoffs – and even that might not save them.
Vanney concedes it’s a tough road ahead, starting with Saturday’s home match against Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy. Still, TFC’s coach holds out hope, and refuses to throw in the towel.
“As long as there’s a way to get it done, it’s incumbent upon us to find that way. If we can build momentum this week and get some sort of rhythm over the next week, I don’t think there’s any reason why we can’t make the run that we need to make to get into the playoffs,” Vanney told Sportsnet.
“But that would be almost like saying nothing behind us happened, and we just need to be up and running, and be our best version of ourselves right now. That’s why I say this first week is important, not solely for the result, but also for us to build the momentum that we’re going to need to go on the run we need to go on and to change the impact of everything behind us.”
What’s behind TFC are 14 losses out of 27 games played in MLS (they only lost five times in 2017) and one of the worst defensive records in the league with 52 goals conceded (they gave up 37 last year).
A year ago, the Reds made a habit of coming from behind – even when teams scored first on them there was always a sense that they would come back to win, and they often did. This season is another story, as TFC sports a league-worst 0-13-1 record when giving up the first goal.
The resiliency and never-say-die attitude Toronto was renowned for during its historic 2017 campaign is long gone. It has been replaced with a sense of impatient urgency – spurred on by the club’s run to the Concacaf Champions League final in April, according to Vanney – that has done the club no favours.
“Since coming out of the Champions League, we’ve always been in a position where we’ve been looking up in the MLS table [and] we’ve felt a sense of urgency to try to push ourselves back into the picture. I feel our group gets impatient when we see that, and we have become overly urgent,” Vanney explained.
“The impatience actually works against us; that impatience tends to expose us more on the defensive side. … We haven’t shown this year to find that ability to be ‘the chaser,’ but also remain patient in order to see out 90 minutes and get the result. There are a number of reasons for that, but that’s been our challenge this year – we’ve always been playing from behind, trying to get to the front.”
How can TFC regain the resiliency they so often displayed last year that they’ll need again in order to sneak into the playoffs? Toronto has to treat every remaining game like it’s the MLS Cup final.
“Our mentality is mostly about understanding what we have to do, which is, I wouldn’t say play flawless soccer, but we certainly can’t shoot ourselves in the foot. We have to play playoff style soccer between now and the end of the season to give ourselves an opportunity [to make the playoffs],” Vanney offered.
“There’s a real challenge in front of us. I don’t know if I’d say there’s an optimism or anything [among the players]; it’s more a recognition and awareness of what has to get done for us to get there, and this is the position that we find ourselves in and have put ourselves in for a variety of reasons.”
Vanney called Saturday’s home game a must-win for TFC, without actually using that term. But, he argues, if a victory can be attained, it creates a pathway that Toronto can follow towards a playoff berth.
“It’s about momentum. We have to win this Galaxy game. That sets us up to for the next game [on the road vs. New York Red Bulls], which is always a tough place to play, to get a result there and then be able to run the rest of the table. If we can go in the Atlanta game [the regular season finale at home] with something to play for, then that’s it. That’s the formula, as I see it,” Vanney explained.
It’s a view shared by veteran defender Drew Moor.
“The team mentality is focused on Saturday night. That’s all there is right now, because we’re aware that we’ve put ourselves in a hole, a very big hole. I’ve been around long enough to know that we’re basically looking at one spot, the sixth spot [in the East],” Moor told Sportsnet.