If ever there was a Major League Soccer coach who decided to drink from the poisoned chalice, that coach would be Greg Vanney.
On Aug. 31, 2014, Toronto FC fired Ryan Nelsen following a 3-0 loss at home to the New England Revolution. Although sitting in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, the Reds, with a 9-9-6 record, were trending in the wrong direction with 10 games remaining in the MLS season. TFC were mired in a dreadful run of defensive form (26 goals against in 13 matches) and Nelsen had lost the room, so general manager Tim Bezbatchenko and former president and CEO of MLSE Tim Leiweke decided to make a change.
Less than 24 hours after the loss to New England, Nelsen was gone, and Vanney, at the time an assistant GM and director of the team’s youth academy, was hired as his replacement. Vanney became the ninth Toronto coach in eight seasons. No TFC coach ever made it past two years, and considering this team’s history of managerial turnover, and Vanney’s inexperience—this was his first head coaching gig, having only previously served as an assistant coach at Chivas USA—the odds were pretty good that he wasn’t going to last long, either.
Two years later, Toronto FC has never been in better shape. The Reds boast the best player in the league, they have a playoff game under their belt (albeit in an embarrassing loss to rivals Montreal), they currently sit in first place in the Eastern Conference and are challenging for the Supporters’ Shield (awarded to the top team in MLS at the end of the regular season), and they look a sure bet to qualify for the playoffs for a second straight year.
And Vanney? He’s still in charge. Tuesday marked exactly two years since his appointment, making him the longest-serving coach in franchise history.
On the date of his two-year anniversary, Vanney sat down for a lengthy, one-on-one chat with Sportsnet.ca to discuss a variety of subjects, including: how he got the job, his managerial style, Sebastian Giovinco’s influence, the playoff loss in Montreal, club president Bill Manning’s decision to stick with him after the playoff loss, his views on social media criticism of the team, and his future with TFC.
Below is part one of our Q&A. You can read part two by CLICKING HERE.
Take me through that day—Aug. 31, 2014—when you were hired as coach, because it was pretty hectic how it all came together. How quickly did it all happen?
Greg Vanney: My head was spinning. It was an uncomfortable feeling. When somebody loses their job, it’s just a very uncomfortable day for everyone. I’d known Ryan for a while, so it was very awkward. Then I got thrown in front of the media and it was just a whirlwind of a day—honestly, I can’t even remember what I said at the press conference. Really, the only thing I remember clearly were the emotions involved, in terms of it was not a good day for the club.
I was thrust into it pretty quickly. We lost that game [vs. New England], and then I took over the next day and we had a midweek game in Philadelphia, so I didn’t have much time to settle. I’d taken the job on Sunday and we were playing again on Wednesday, so my immediate thoughts were how was I going to try to impact this group of players. My immediate thought was ‘what do I do next?’
Did you have a sense that something was in the works before it happened? Did you know that Tim Bezbatchenko was thinking about making a coaching change?
Vanney: Everyone in the building knew it was getting down to a bit of crunch time in terms of results and performances. But I didn’t know anything specifically as to when or what it was going to take, either way, for Ryan to lose his job or keep his job. I wasn’t privy to those conversations, and I honestly didn’t know what the next plan would be in terms of who was going to take over for Ryan. It wasn’t until after the game on Saturday that Tim [Leiweke] and Tim [Bezbatchenko] called me into the office and said ‘we’re going to do this. This is going to happen. Are you ready to do this?’ I said I was ready, and that I have some opinions on the team having watched from afar, and they said, ‘well, here you go.’ [laughs]
It happened very fast and I wasn’t inside the loop that it was coming, and I think that’s important that it be that way because you never want the next guy to be there just waiting for the job to fall into his lap as he looks over your shoulder. That’s not fair to the incumbent coach.
Why did you want the job? With all due respect to TFC, you were fully aware of the team’s history of hiring and firing coaches. You had far more job security as assistant GM and director of the youth academy. So why take this job on?
Vanney: What it mostly came down to was I cared about the club. I spent the first seven months here working with Tim and Tim trying to lay out a long-term vision for the club, and how the club could be successful for many years. I’m very passionate about working on projects, and I quickly get locked in and involved in on projects when I start them. When I get involved in a project, I throw my entire self into that project, and the project I took on here was trying to make this club successful. I felt like we were a little bit of a club in crisis at the time, and I was asked to be the guy to help us at that moment, so more than anything else I felt obligated.
Being a head coach was something I was always interested in, but I didn’t know when it would come. For me the process is all about learning. Every step I’ve taken, even when I was a player, all of these steps I’ve taken in my career have been to try to learn more about being a coach—whether it’s learning more about the league, working closely with Tim [Bezbatchenko] to learn about the inside stuff of MLS and how things work. I tried to build up a number of different experiences that would help me when I got that shot one day to be a coach.
I didn’t expect it to happen as quickly as it did. I had confidence in my knowledge of the game, and who I am as a manager of people. It felt like the club was in a position where it seemed it needed that. So I went for it. There was a bit of discussion and debate between my wife and I because she knew head coaches don’t have a ton of job security, especially in the past with TFC. The role I was in at the time had far more long-term security.
So you felt as though you were taking a chance in taking the job?
Vanney: I did, yeah. I knew it was a bit of a risk, but I also knew that over the course of a career there are only so many times that you get opportunities. For me, I felt confident in what I knew, I was confident in what I’m capable of doing and here was the chance.
You’ve said previously that one of the hardest parts of this job has been to change the culture of TFC. What was the culture like when you took over as coach? How has it changed in the last two years?
Vanney: Before I arrived here, I’d gone to other teams and done club evaluations—at Barcelona, Stuttgart, clubs in France—so I had walked into clubs before where you instantly feel the culture and how they work and how things are done, and that they have certain systems in place, and you just feel the success that comes from it. When I came here I didn’t feel like that when I first walked into the building—it still felt disjointed. It wasn’t everybody working together under a similar idea of what success is and how we’re going to get there. There were still a lot of different ideas, and the different departments were disjointed; people were not necessarily collaborating together and going in the same direction with uniformity and with a clear idea of how to define success.
So for me, it was important to define where it is we’re going, and how we’re going to get there. Once you have that, it’s about getting the people on board that are going to buy into it and who are going to add something to what you are doing to help you get there. It’s like I say all the time to the players: I might not have the perfect idea of how to play the game, but if we all are on the same page, we give ourselves the best possible chance to win every time we step onto the field because we’re better as a team than we are as a collection of individuals—and the same applies to us as a club. The sooner we all could get on the same page, and everybody had their responsibility and role within the bigger picture, the better.
How much of changing the culture is tied to achieving success on the field?
Vanney: Oh, that’s part of it, no doubt. I think you need some successes, you need something along the way that convinces or assures everybody that they’re on the right path, and what they’re doing is working, and that takes time. There were a number of years where the club probably felt it was on the right path but [the kind of] success that builds up the confidence of what people are doing didn’t come.
Last year we started to get little wins along the way—it took us a while to keep building up little wins. Last year, it was a big win to get to the playoffs, but I thought it was just a series of little wins that got us there. I said to the team at the end of the season that we really didn’t take the big step forward—we took a lot of little steps forward. We took the little steps, stayed consistent with the process and we got to the playoffs. We clearly weren’t ready to win once we go to the playoffs for various reasons.
What have you done to make sure you’re ready to win this year?
Vanney: I think it’s about being honest about yourself and your group and how you’re going to get better. It’s easy for people sometimes to not be honest with themselves, but for me, we had to really have an honest evaluation of where we stood and what we had. We recognized what new pieces we really needed, and that means we had to have difficult conversations, letting guys go that you don’t really want to let go but you need to let go in order to get to the next level. We had a sit-down at the end of last year and we were all on the same page, me and Tim [Bezbatchenko] and Bill [Manning] as to what were the pieces we needed to add that could help us take another step forward.
I still think we have more steps to take, there’s still a lot to learn. I, as a manager, still have a lot to learn. It’s always a constant process—I am never satisfied. I’m always looking for the perfect game, and I know it’s never going to come, but I’m always in search of it. I’ll always feel there’s something we can improve upon. That’s how I go about my job every day.
How have you grown into the job?
Vanney: From the get go, I wanted to be very clear with the ideas I wanted to impart to the players, and the more times you do it, and the more years you get under your belt, and the more pre-seasons you have, the clearer you are on what you want to achieve, and the better feel you get from the players with regards to their skill sets, the better you can fit your pieces together on the pitch.
Management was a big thing for me, in terms of how I want to go about getting them to buy in and getting the most out of them. For me, it’s important that each guy on the team feels as though he’s adding something to our team. There are a lot of coaches who have their starting 11 and that’s it—they really work their 11 and everybody else is on the perimeter. For me, every guy has to be invested, and feel as though they play a role in our success as a team. Once you establish that, then you get the ultimate buy in, so for me, I concentrate on how I work with each player and make sure they feel that way. You can’t make everybody happy. Guys want to play and they don’t always play, but it’s always about making each and every guy emotionally invested in the project and that they feel as though they have value to the club and our success.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.