TORONTO â€” Dropped in the coaching deep end towards the end of the 2014 season, Greg Vanney has managed to accomplish what the eight men before him failed to do â€” instil a winning culture at Toronto FC.
Vanney, who took Toronto to within one kick of the MLS championship last season, marks his 100th game in charge on Wednesday night when Orlando City visits BMO Field.
Toronto (3-1-4) is coming off impressive wins over Chicago and Houston. Orlando (6-0-1) arrives with the best record in MLS and will be a stiff test.
Since taking over the team on Aug. 31, 2014, Vanney has made good use of the talent pipeline set up by general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. The 42-year-old former U.S. international defender has learned on the job, changing tactics to suit his personnel.
Blessed with a squad that has got deeper each year, Vanney has been an effective man-manager. If any players are dissatisfied with their role, they have kept it in-house.
Vanney has also managed to handle his team’s diverse egos. While the team is harmonious, there is no shortage of big personalities in the TFC dressing room.
Toronto defender Eriq Zavaleta, who as Vanney’s nephew knows him better than most, says the TFC coach starts with a work ethic second to none.
“He understands the league and understands what it takes to be successful,” said Zavaleta. “I think he’s done a very very good job over the course of his first game to his 100th game now at adapting, at learning, at listening to his players â€” doing everything he can to get the most out of his players and get the most out of his team.
“You’ve seen our team evolve over those 100 games in a way that is a lot of credit to him.”
Striker Jozy Altidore says Vanney’s instincts and timing as a coach are spot-on.
“He’s done a really good job in terms of kind of letting the guys sort themselves at times, which is something that sounds simple but I don’t think a lot of coaches do. They try to micro-manage everything and I don’t think he’s about that.
“He kind of lets guys do their own thing but when it’s time to work and be serious, he makes sure he lets us know that. So I think he’s done a terrific job here. You can see with how the team has grown the past couple of years and huge credit to him.”
Vanney, who is backed by a coaching staff with whom he has deep roots, is more comfortable talking about his team than himself.
“There’s lots of ways that I feel like I’ve grown but what’s most important through this stretch is that the team has continued to improve, even on an upward trend,” he said.
Players past and present point to Vanney’s constant study of the game.
Former Los Angeles Galaxy teammate Ante Jazic called him a “soccer nerd.” Toronto defender Drew Moor, who played with Vanney at FC Dallas in 2006, opted for “soccer geek.”
“He watches the best teams in the world to see how he can make TFC better,” said Moor.
Wednesday’s milestone â€” which covers MLS regular-season, playoff and Canadian Championship games â€” is all the more remarkable given the franchise’s revolving door approach to head coaches in the past
Toronto went through eight in the eight years before Vanney took charge.
Hired in December 2013 as Toronto’s assistant general manager and academy director, Vanney took over as coach with 10 games remaining in the 2014 season. Toronto finished 2-6-2 under Vanney.
He still remembers that run, recalling a Gilberto goal controversially disallowed in stoppage time that denied Toronto a win against Chicago and a Jermain Defoe penalty kick miss in a loss to Houston.
All the while, he was evaluating his assets and liabilities.
“You learn most about yourself and about your players in moments of urgency and moments where there’s high pressure,” he said.
A father of four, Vanney has plenty to occupy himself at home. A recent trip to see the Blue Jays with his family was a nice break.
But he says the soccer stays with him after a game.
“It takes a while,” he said. “Eventually I fall asleep. But when I’m awake, usually probably every 10 or 15 or 20 minutes I have a new thought or something going on in my head â€” something I have to deal with or something I have to think about.”
In 2015, TFC went 15-15-4 to make the playoffs for the first time. Toronto lost 3-0 in Montreal in ignominious fashion but at least the post-season had been reached.
In 2016, Toronto won the Canadian Championship and dispatched Philadelphia, New York City FC and the Montreal Impact in the playoffs before losing a penalty shootout to Seattle.
His record today at the helm is 41-35-23. Since mid-July 2016, Toronto has lost just five of 29 games (15-5-9) with one of those losses coming in the aggregate playoff victory over Montreal.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press