For a man who just lost his star striker and top scorer over the past four seasons, Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney is surprisingly calm and philosophical about the situation.
“Soccer is a business, and sometimes this stuff happens,” he told Sportsnet over the phone from California.
TFC announced this week that it sold Sebastian Giovinco to Saudi Arabian club Al-Hilal, a move that came about after talks between the player and the MLS club over a contract extension fell apart.
While Vanney was putting his team through its paces in training camp in California, Giovinco and his agent negotiated with club president Bill Manning and newly-installed general manager Ali Curtis. But the two parties couldn’t come to terms on money or the length of a proposed new deal, and it became clear the Italian wasn’t going to suit up for the Reds in 2019. Unwilling to let Giovinco, who was in the final year of his contract, walk away and not get anything in return at the end of the season, TFC tried to salvage a bad situation by selling him to Al-Hilal for a transfer fee.
Giovinco took MLS by storm since arriving in Toronto via a transfer from Serie A side Juventus, firmly establishing himself as one of the best players and most dangerous scorers in the league. He helped the Reds win an MLS Cup in 2017, and he leaves Toronto with 73 goals and 57 assists in 125 MLS regular-season and playoff games over four seasons.
In a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet, Vanney talked about the departure of Giovinco and what it means for TFC, and much more.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sportsnet: I’m sure you read or heard about Giovinco’s post on Instagram in which he criticized club management over the contract negotiations. What’s your response?
Vanney: My response is that I wish him well, and I don’t say that in any kind of condescending way. I genuinely mean that. There’s a business side to all of this, and there’s a lot of factors in play. I don’t think it’s just so simple to say that it’s one thing or the other. There are a lot of variables in play that entice a club and a club to reach an agreement over an extended period of time, which is what this discussion was all about.
In the end, the result is the result. From my perspective, I’ve been focused on the group of players that’s here [in California] and preparing them for the season in front of us. I believe the group we have and the group of players we’re looking to bring in can be successful. That’s something that will always be a part of this club no matter what – the task I’ve been given is to win championships and to win games. In the course of doing that, business things happen as well, so I have to be flexible and ready to move, and I have to be ready to put the pieces together to be successful. That’s what I’ve been trying to do through all of this.
Sportsnet: What was your role in the contract negotiation process? Were you directly involved in the talks?
Vanney: I haven’t been directly involved in the discussions, [but] I always knew what was happening because there’s a business side to this with the contracts and agreements, and there’s the soccer side which is if a player happens to leave, then how is that going to impact the team? Who is the next player we bring in? What is that going to look like in terms of my vision and direction for the team on the field, and how the pieces are going to fit together?
Bill and Ali were always keeping me abreast of what was going on to the extent that I needed to advise them on the soccer side – what are we going to do next if this happens and how is this going to play out? This was the part [of the process] that I have to be in tune with because I’m preparing a group of players to play a certain way for the season, and as certain players and type of personalities go out, we have to know how the team is going to look like when new players come in.
Sportsnet: Did you have any conversations with Giovinco before he signed with Al-Hillal?
Vanney: He was here in California, and he was very professional through the process until things came to the very end and he had his emotional feelings that came to the forefront. We talked a lot about what was ahead for him and his family potentially if he were to go, but also if he were to stay and what that would look like with respect to our team. There was never this concrete one way or another; we were always talking about both possibilities… and how it would impact the team, either way.
Sportsnet: Could this entire thing have been handled better, either by the club or Giovinco, or both sides?
Vanney: I don’t have an opinion on that. I wasn’t in on the discussions; it’s just unfortunate that a player who has been such a key part of the success of the club departs on what he feels is a sour note. That’s unfortunate. But some of that is also business, and it doesn’t always end beautifully. I wish it could have [ended] in a way where we and the fans and everybody could celebrate Sebastian’s achievements with the club a little bit more.
Sportsnet: You mentioned Giovinco playing a key part in the team’s success the past few years. In that regard, how big of a blow is it for the club to lose a player of his calibre?
Vanney: He’s a great player who’s done great things since he’s been here. We have to adapt. When we bring in a new player, he won’t be like Sebastian; he probably won’t play exactly like Sebastian. Our team will evolve in this process. We won’t be the exact same team, but we’ll still play the same type of soccer. We’re still going to play an attacking style of soccer. We’re still going to try to do a lot of the things we’ve done in the past because that’s my vision of how we should play. When I put down a vision of how we’re going to play, it’s based on how I see the game, and then I fit the pieces and players together.
But I’m not going to change the way and the style and the view I have of the game. We’re going to find the pieces that we think an play that way. So, we’ll continue down that path. The quality and what Sebastian brought to the table may not be exactly what the next guy has, but were going to be looking for something that fits the puzzle we’re trying to piece together.
Sportsnet: What’s been the reaction of the players in training camp over Giovinco’s departure?
Vanney: I’ve been incredibly impressed with our group of players here. There’s been a lot of stuff going on, stuff that on a normal day could be distracting. This group of guys have just put their head down and remained focus through all of this. I haven’t heard any complaining or moaning … or anything. They understand that these things have to work themselves out, but it hasn’t taken away from the concentration of the group.
Sportsnet: Giovinco’s departure comes on the heels of Tim Bezbatchenko stepping down as GM to go to Columbus, the sale of Victor Vazquez to Al-Arab in Qatar, and the situation with Gregory van der Wiel. This all happened within the month of January, so to an outsider, it looks like TFC is in turmoil. Is that an accurate reflection of the state of the club at the moment?
Vanney: Some of these things didn’t happen overnight. These are discussions that have been happening for a little while. It’s just a matter of when does it all come to a head. There’s never a perfect time. I wouldn’t call it turmoil. There’s a little bit of a transition going on. It was either going to be that some of it would happen right now or a lot of it happening later, but it’s a part of the transition. Within that, players are trying to solidify their futures, and clubs are trying to run a business and trying to win. So, there’s a lot of things at play, and I know this all seems like it’s happened fast, but these conversations have been going on for months.
With Victor, just as an example, we’ve known for a little while that he ultimately would like to have become a DP and for us to pay him a little more. He’d proven himself in that capacity, but we knew we had a ceiling and based on league rules we couldn’t, so there were a number of different things that came together in that situation and that it wasn’t going to last forever. So, again, while it seems like it’s all happening fast and the timing isn’t perfect, it’s soccer. My job and Ali’s job is to be prepared for when these moments come around and have a plan when it happens.
Sportsnet: Can you shed any light on what happened with Gregory van der Wiel? Why was he sent home to Toronto from training camp, and why are you looking to move him to another club? Is there any chance he will stay with TFC for the 2019 season?
Vanney: What I’ll say is he was a big distraction in the team. Last year we went through a season with some distractions, and I vowed to our group that when we came into training camp that I was going to protect the group and make sure that we had no distractions going into the season, and that we were going to move forward in way where we could concentrate on our day-to-day preparations. It was a situation that wasn’t necessarily going to get better, so we made the move we did.