TORONTO – Greg Vanney was not your typical rookie by today’s Major League Soccer standards.
Selected 17th overall out of UCLA during the 1996 MLS SuperDraft, Vanney hit the ground running by appearing in 29 of 32 games (24 as a starter) for the LA Galaxy during the league’s inaugural season that same year.
Over the ensuing five campaigns, Vanney, a defender of some repute during his playing days, averaged 26 starts and close to 2,400 minutes per season, and was twice named to the MLS end-of-season all-star team.
MLS was an upstart league back then, still finding its footing. Unable to lure international stars in their prime, the league relied heavily upon domestic products and players coming out of the NCAA system.
Times have changed, and MLS is in a much different place at the moment. The league is now able to attract more experienced stars from Europe and South America who are still in the prime of their careers. At the same time, the general standard of play in MLS has grown exponentially since its formative years, making it increasingly difficult for young players developed in Canada and the United States, including those coming out of American college soccer, to make their mark in the league. Most MLS draft picks fail to make any kind of impact.
Vanney sympathizes with the situation that many young MLS players find themselves in, and as coach of Toronto FC he’s in a position to do something about it. But Vanney is not of the “play the kids at any expense” school of thought. At the end of the day, it’s a results business, and results can’t be sacrificed at the expense of blooding young talent.
“I mean, you find me any manager who is interested in bringing along young players, but is willing to lose in the process – it just doesn’t happen,” Vanney offered during a lengthy sit-down interview with Sportsnet.
While youthful exuberance counts for something, experience counts for more in the modern game. Rather than trotting out a starting 11 full of youngsters, most managers tend to go with their steady hands, and as a result experienced players tend to eat up the majority of playing time.
“What we see all around the world is that most teams will rely on 14 to 16 players, and they play 80 per cent of the minutes during a season. Then you have a peripheral group, players 17 through 20 [on a roster], who will play the majority of the remaining minutes. For teams who want to play for championships, it tends to be that way,” Vanney explained.
Toronto FC is no exception. When everybody is healthy, the Reds have as many as eight players who are locks as starters. Among those who eat up a lot of starting minutes are a pair of 23-year-olds in American midfielder Marky Delgado and Brazilian wingback Auro Jr. Canadian international Jonathan Osorio, 26, is another regular starter for TFC under Vanney.
But Canadians Jay Chapman (25), Jordan Hamilton (22) and Liam Fraser (21) are among a group of TFC youngsters who have had to patiently bide their time.
Hamilton made his MLS debut with Toronto in 2014, but the forward has never made more than 11 starts per season and never once played more than 1,000 minutes in a single campaign. Like Hamilton, Chapman spent time with the TFC youth academy, and he too has struggled to earn regular playing time – he made just 23 starts over the previous four seasons.
A product of TFC’s youth academy, Fraser signed with the first team last year and played in 10 league games – with midfielders the calibre of Michael Bradley, Osorio and Delgado ahead of him on Toronto’s depth chart, playing opportunities were few and far between. The same was true for 19-year-old forward Ayo Akinola, another academy graduate who debuted for the Reds but made just four MLS appearances (totalling a mere 45 minutes) last season.
In 2008, MLS introduced the Homegrown Player Rule, a program that allows teams to sign local players direct from their development academies. Last season, TFC ranked eighth in the league in terms of minutes played (with 3,513) by their homegrown players, according to The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter. Only four of the 12 playoff teams had more homegrown minutes than TFC, which serves to underline Vanney’s point about experience trumping youth.
That being said, Vanney insists he is committed to giving his young players and those on the fringe of the starting 11 more chances this season.
“Is it hard to break into our starting lineup? Yes. For guys 17 and 18 [on our roster], they’re in the mix all the time. For guys 19 through 29, there are challenges, for sure. But what we hope to do this year, with some stability, is to give a player here and a player there some opportunities to jump in and get a game. That’s part of what we would like to accomplish this season. If we can do that, you’ll see a lot of young players get opportunities through this season,” Vanney said.
How does Vanney plan go about doing about that when, by his own admission, so many experienced players are logging thousands of minutes and earning the majority of starts? It might be hard to believe, but Vanney argues that having a steady rotation of 14-16 regular starters is the key to giving younger players more chances to show what they can do.
“The one thing you’re looking for in any young player is when they get an opportunity that they are consistent and reliable in the simple things they do, and that they are a piece of helping the team being successful. … But there also has to be stability in those moments when you try to give guys their opportunities,” Vanney said.
“If we can keep stability as a group, meaning if we keep some version of our top eight or nine starters on the field, then it’s very easy to take one position and give a young guy a start and give him some minutes.”
In 2018, a combination of injuries and a heavy fixture list thanks to the team’s run in the Concacaf Champions League meant Vanney had to call upon many young, experienced players in the same games. The results weren’t always great.
“Last year, we ran into problems starting three, four, sometimes five players who were trying to gain that experience at the same time. What you end up with is a lot of little mistakes that become big mistakes. Those mistakes accumulate over a course of a game. If you have stability around, and a young player is gaining experience but makes little mistake, those errors don’t get punished as much. For me, that’s the best environment for these younger players to progress.”
Toronto won its opening game of the season earlier this month in Philadelphia, and will host New England in its home opener on Sunday. We’re still early in the season, but Vanney expects Chapman and Fraser will get ample playing time in 2019.
“I don’t look at Jay as a young player anymore. I look at Jay as a player who needs to establish himself as one our top 14 or 15 layers, and that would mean he is consistently in our rotation of the lineup,” Vanney explained.
“Liam does a lot of things on the attacking side really well. Where he’s still maturing as a pro is on the defensive side – his game reading, covering, getting into the right spaces at the right time and seeing things before they happen. … This year, he needs to take another step up.”
Finding the right moments and situation to deploy his crop of young stars is just one part of Vanney’s job. Another crucial part is managing expectations, and being clear with players as to where they stand. Often times, Vanney plays the role of counselor, doing his best to ensure his young players remain focused and don’t become disenfranchised over the lack of opportunities.
“I think it’s important that players have a good sense of where they are at all times, and what they need to be doing to get their next chance. There’s a lot of communication between myself and the players. That’s simple management, and that’s a big part of my job,” Vanney stated.
“The gap between what the player expects and wants, and what the reality is, there’s often a gap there, especially with young players. As a coach, you have to manage that, but communication will only last so long … there also has to be proof in the pudding that the player is making progress.”