Toronto FC coach Greg Vanney has been here before. So too have Dan Calichman and Robin Fraser, his top two assistants.
All three were key players for the LA Galaxy side that accumulated 68 points during the 1998 MLS regular season. It’s a record that still stands today, although TFC, who currently top the table with 68 points, can break the mark with a win or draw in Sunday’s regular-season finale away to Atlanta United FC.
That ’98 Galaxy team set the standard in MLS during the regular season, but they couldn’t carry over that success into the playoffs, as they bowed out in the conference finals to the Chicago Fire, the eventual MLS Cup champions.
Vanney, Calichman and Fraser forged a close bond during their time together in LA. It’s a friendship that has grown stronger over the years, and when Vanney was appointed TFC coach back in 2014 he wasted little time in calling up his old friends to help him out. Together, they’re a big reason why Toronto FC has enjoyed great success the past two seasons.
Sportsnet chatted one-on-one with the three TFC coaches ahead of Sunday’s game, asking them to compare the 1998 LA side and the current Toronto team, and to get their feelings on the possibility of breaking the record.
Let’s get right to it. Which is the better team: the 1998 LA Galaxy side or the 2017 version of Toronto FC?
Greg Vanney: This team is the better team. It becomes the evolution of the league over time and the evolution of players and the evolution of resources. The tactics in our league have come a long way, not just within our group compared to that group, but also across MLS. The league has become more sophisticated in many ways and more competitive. Apples to apples, if you were to put both teams out against each other, this team has more depth from top to bottom and, by and large, better players from position to position.
Dan Calichman: TFC. Absolutely. Player for player, this team’s better. This team is pretty spectacular. Not only do they have the cohesiveness that the ’98 Galaxy team did, but they have better players. Also, that ’98 team, we had a pretty good year, but we didn’t end up winning anything. The goal was to win MLS Cup, and we came up short. So, we hope that TFC can not only have a better regular season but also show their excellence in the playoffs.
Robin Fraser: I don’t even know how you can compare teams across eras because the league is so different. It’s hard to say. The 1998 team was very good – we had a lot of very, very good players. A lot of experienced players who meshed well together. These days, it might be harder to be as dominant [in MLS], as defensive structures have become more sophisticated. All I can say is [LA was] a very good team back then, and [Toronto is] a very good team now. Certainly, we feel like this group feels pretty confident in most situations, and that’s when you feel the team is really on the verge of something special. We didn’t win [in 1998], so in the end, hopefully this team outdoes the ’98 team.
Are there any lessons this TFC team can learn from ‘98 Galaxy side?
Dan Calichman: Win more games in the playoffs than we did. [laughs] There’s that saying, ‘sign the painting.’ Create that beautiful piece of artwork but then sign it – meaning, finish off the whole thing. The playoffs are difficult; it’s not an easy format. Finish off the job.
Robin Fraser: Even through the ’98 season as our attackers were scoring goals left and right, a lot of us were concerned that maybe we weren’t quite as defensively solid as we needed to be to win everything. Certainly, we had moments where we were unstoppable. But I remember we had some highs and lows, and really you want to avoid the lows. I feel this group has done a good job of really addressing how solid they are defensively. Everyone talks about how many goals this team has scored, but within that it shouldn’t be lost that the group is very responsible defensively. Defence wins championships, I think.
You really believe that?
Robin Fraser: I do. I think it’s a big part of our success this season. To always be in a game [because of your defence], it’s a huge advantage. If you’re always in the game, it’s a different mindset than having to come from behind or being down goals. It wears on you. As this team has matured, we have learned to be more responsible defensively and we’ve kept ourselves in games. You need a platform to be good, and I think part of that is you have to be solid defensively.
How much of the Galaxy’s success in 1998 was due to manager Octavio Zambrano, and the style of attacking soccer he preached?
Dan Calichman: He was a big part of it. One of Octavio’s best qualities is that he instills confidence in players, so he let the attack be free and run. There was a solid defensive group that could handle things, as well. It really was a great combination, but he was a big part of it, and deserves a lot of credit.
Robin Fraser: Octavio was in situation where he had a wealth of talent and different types of talent, different types of experiences. We all benefited from that. We had international guys, and we had young guys – Clint Mathis was in his first year out of college and turned out to set the world on fire for a few years.
How much of the success you’re enjoying with Toronto FC is that much sweeter because you’re achieving it together?
Greg Vanney: For sure. I also think it’s a big reason why we’re successful. In order to be successful you need to have everyone pushing in the same direction. It doesn’t mean everyone has the same idea about everything, but they have the ability to share their ideas and get onboard and move things in a certain direction. We have lot of fun doing it, but all three of us are very competitive and we all have very different personalities. We enjoy what we do, and we enjoy doing it all together.
Dan Calichman: It’s the most amazing job in the world. I absolutely love Greg and Robin. We were teammates, we struggled together, and we formed those bonds. I’d do anything for them, including moving to Toronto. [laughs] I wake up every day and I am so thankful that Greg called me and invited me take part in this thing. I tell him after most games that this is the greatest thing, that we get to work together. We had a vision on what we wanted to create when we first came in, and it’s nice to see it happening.
Robin Fraser: It’s great. Soon after we first met each other, we had a ton of respect for one another as players. You go through some of these battles with guys and you become even closer, and our time on and off the field the last 20 years has been great. To come back together here, to put our ideas together and our energy together and achieve this success, it’s been incredibly gratifying. It’s one thing to enjoy your life professionally, and another to enjoy your life personally. It’s been great here from the standpoint that you do this with really great friends.
Sounds like you guys are more than just friends, but also kindred spirits.
Greg Vanney: It’s interesting. When we first met in ’96 in LA, I am younger than them so when I came into that team they were two veteran guys. When I got in LA, I’m not a very boisterous person. I don’t need to be the life of the party. I kept my mouth shut and listened, and tried to figure out who within this group were the guys I needed to listen to, and the guys I needed to attach my wagon to because they were going to help me transition from being a college player to a pro player. That’s when the relationship started and after so many years of being around each other, we started to get a sense of how each other thinks. We all see the world in similar ways, and we see the game in similar ways, though we don’t always agree.
Is it difficult at times being Robin’s and Dan’s boss?
Greg Vanney: Not really. I don’t necessarily position myself around them as, ‘hey, you have to do this,’ or ‘I’m the boss.’ They understand what it means to be an assistant coach, so I really don’t have to assert myself in that way. If I need something done, of course, I ask them do it. If we get into discussions, because of our long-standing relationship, they’ll voice their opinions as if we are three guys, but they have a good sense of when a decision has been made and that’s the direction we’re going in. It was strange to me at first, but over the course of three years a lot of that just settles in and it becomes natural.
What’s your lasting memory of that 1998 LA Galaxy side? When you think about that team, what stands out the most?
Dan Calichman: The locker-room. It will always be about the players, the group of guys. What a tight group we were. Obviously, it was a season where he had a great start and then I ended up breaking my leg, which was difficult because I was never the same player after that. But just an amazing year, and just so glad that I lived it, that I was a part of it.
What was that injury like for you, going through that experience?
Dan Calichman: We were eight games into the season. We were 8 and 0. Injuries are difficult to deal with. Having rods and screws in my leg, it affected me. But that’s what you sign up for. At the time, it hurt. [laughs] I was so angry and so mad at Marcelo Balboa for that tackle, because I immediately knew how serious it was. If I could’ve got off that stretcher I would have went after him. [laughs] But eventually I calmed down. We patched things up afterwards. He tried to call me a few times, and at first I didn’t want to take his call. I was still very angry. But then we saw each other and we were fine. There was no intent. It was a stupid tackle, and I’m sure he would say that, but he wasn’t looking to break my leg.
Greg Vanney: It was a big blow us. He was our captain and the most vocal guy on that team. The loudest when things didn’t seem to be right – he was the first one to come in barking. Soon after him was probably Robin. So, when you lose a guy with such a big personality and he was such a stabilizing force for the back … to lose him from our back line and from a leadership standpoint, it was massive. I was just taken aback by the whole situation, trying to take it in, trying to process what it meant for us as a group, how did my role change, what was the dynamic on the team going to look like for me. I tried to be there for Dan, too.
Is there any small part of you that doesn’t want to see Toronto set a new record?
Greg Vanney: No. No small part. The evolution of the league makes it interesting, and even more difficult now than it was back then in a lot of ways – the resources in the league, the expansion up to 22 teams. I also think the East is by far the superior conference this year, which means we’ve been able to do it this year in the far superior conference in what has become a very challenging league. It’s a great opportunity, for that it’s worth, to try and go for it. If we beat it, then it’ll be great and I won’t have any remorse.
Dan Calichman: God, no! My God. To be honest, I think people are making a big deal about this thing, but I don’t think the three of us have really thought about it, or really cared that much about it. The records are something that everybody else brings up and talks about. There’s not one part of me that will have any sadness. I hope these guys are far more successful.
Robin Fraser: No. I mean, it was great. We had a great team, we’ll always have those memories, whether records are broken or not. We’ll laugh about an 8-1 win, things that occurred that season. Those memories will always be there. But you want to be the best. I feel like this club has been a tremendous place for all of us, and to be a part of this and watch the team grow, and to do it all together, it’s been incredible.