TORONTO – The winningest coach in Toronto FC history doesn’t remember much about his first.
Having taken over the head coaching position on August 31 2014, Greg Vanney collected his 100th win in MLS action with a 1-0 win over NYCFC at BMO Field on March 7 2020, the last match the club played before the regular season was paused.
For the Match of the Week, the mind is cast back to September 21 2014, and a date against Chivas USA. The fourth match in his managerial career and that first victory.
Vanney entered at a tumultuous time. The club was winless in three, including a couple of dispiriting ones away to Sporting KC and at home against the New England Revolution, the game that cost Ryan Nelsen his job.
There was little time to implement change. Back-to-back matches against the Philadelphia Union, first away then home, came in the first week of his tenure. The Union took them both. And a week later in Chicago a late game-winner from Gilberto was controversially ruled out for a phantom foul.
With that 1-1 draw, TFC squared off against Chivas still in search of a path to their first-ever playoff berth with seven games left to save the season.
“We were just trying to find a way into the playoffs,” recalled Vanney. “For me, it was also a transformation in the style of play, trying to get the group to be more confident, more sure of what it is that they were trying to do on the field, but, ultimately, really it was just trying to round up results.”
As fate would have it, Chivas was where Vanney first graced the professional touchlines as an assistant coach. Much of his staff in Toronto, Robin Fraser and Dan Calichman for example, were there as well.
“Chivas was a club that we had some history with, so it was a little bit personal as well, but we just needed to get a win,” explained Vanney. “We came off two games that happened quickly – Philadelphia, Philadelphia, right off the bat – so we just needed to get on the right side of wins so that we could build a little confidence on what we're doing and some momentum as we were approaching that last stretch of games.”
“The Chivas game came at the right time,” he continued. “Some things came together for us, we encountered a team that was struggling, and we were able to take advantage of that on the day and get a result which helped us to build a little bit going into the next series of games.”
Jackson gave Toronto the lead in the 23rd minute, Luke Moore added a second before half-time, and Gilberto sealed the result early in the second half, but the details have faded with time.
“I don’t remember a lot,” admitted Vanney. “We played well as I recall and we deserved to win. I remember things like Marky [Delgado], being on the [Chivas] team, injured if I'm not mistaken, and Eriq [Zavaleta] was on the team.”
“The game itself or the details within.... There's been so many games between now and then,” he added. “And that whole time period was a little bit of a whirlwind to be fair.”
With much to be done and a match against the Portland Timbers on the horizon there was no time to celebrate the milestone.
“More than anything it was, ‘Finally, we got one; now how can we build off of this,’” said Vanney. “I don't think I spent too much time thinking about [it being the first]. If anything, I probably spent more time just hoping that wasn't the first and the last.”
“But I recall having discussions with guys like Justin Morrow and a few others,” he continued. “We had been working on some patterns because the group didn't have a collective idea of what they're trying to do in attacks. After the game they were recognizing that some of the patterns had come out in the game and some of the good attacks came off of the patterns and relationships that we had been working on.”
A concept that would prove fruitful in the coming years.
“Between that and us getting a result,” Vanney recalled. “It helped us to develop a little more confidence as we went into another tough stretch.”
Toronto would beat Portland 3-2, but a trio of losses would follow, ending the hopes of a postseason.
Vanney points to two results in particular as being costly: “We missed a PK against Houston at home, end up not getting a result, and then what I thought was a goal got called back in Chicago.”
“Those couple of plays were a part of costing us our chance to get in the playoffs,” he added. “But we had developed some confidence and belief in ourselves during that stretch and a lot of it came from this particular game [against Chivas].”
Though the battle was lost, lessons were learned.
That was added to the first-hand knowledge of the situation that Vanney had as the TFC Academy Director.
“One of the biggest things, in terms of just building the team, was culture,” Vanney stressed, having had an inside look at the state of the club as TFC Academy Director. “As I was in the building, but not necessarily around the team all the time, I felt like the culture of work and expectation just wasn't there.”
“Hardly anyone was ever in the weight room and if guys were anywhere, they were on their phones. There wasn't a whole lot of work being put down. I didn't walk in and feel this is a team and a club that is going to be successful; [where] you can see the work being done, you can see the direction is laid down,” he recalled. “The culture really had to shift because the club also had the history of, not just that season, but the seven prior.”
“The second part was the chemistry,” Vanney continued. “Not as guys, because in some ways they liked each other, but they didn't get along on the field. The Gilbertos and Defoes didn't really care for each other on the field as players. When two of your DPs don't really get along and don't really like playing together that's a problem.”
“We had to build off of some relationship and that has to start with your three highest paid players. They have to be able to play together; they have to set the core of the team on the field, in the performance side, and then you have to add the pieces to those guys,” Vanney thought. “The core at that point just wasn't connected. One of the first things we had to do was reestablish the direction of the team, the makeup of the team, starting with the DPs. And then we needed to be more purposeful in what we were doing. That was my goal.”
It was the nascence of a philosophy that remains central to this day.
“I was a young coach with a lot of ideas; I've learned a lot between now and then, but some of these very basic things haven’t changed: you have to have a collective plan in what you're trying to do in attack, you have to have a collective plan in what you're trying to do defensively and those have to relate to each other,” Vanney maintained. “And how you train has to specifically work towards that end and those objectives, and it has to make sense.”
“We had to reestablish that so the players had clarity in what it is that they were trying to do on both sides of the ball. We had a lot of pieces, things that we had to start building on and creating a direction for,” he continued. “Those were the takeaways in those first 10 games. You start to learn a lot about guys and who you want to keep, who you have to move on, and who's going to fit together.”
Changes would be made for the following season and every year after that would see some more, but three players who featured on that day are still with the club: Morrow, Michael Bradley, and Jonathan Osorio.
Vanney summed up that trio with two key words: “Culture and professionalism.”
“Those three guys are the epitome of ‘professionals’; hard working guys, team guys. We've seen Oso really grow over those years,” Vanney elaborated. “He was fairly young at that point, but putting a culture around Jonathan's mentality to want to become a good player changed him.”
“Michael has always been super-focused, hyper-focused, dedicated and professional and Justin, the same. They take care of themselves, work hard every day, they work with our staff so that we're all on the same page, and they’ve been durable,” Vanney added. “Their performances have proven their value over this time period. Guys were added, but they were a part of the core culture building.”
99 wins later, with several pieces of silverware and a ton of experiences in tow, was this the vision of the club that Vanney had when the process began all those years ago?
“We, for sure, had hoped. That was the goal,” he replied. “In the early years, first couple of years, as we were building the team and adding pieces still to get to our most complete self, there were times when I was still trying to convince the team, verbally, that they could be a championship-calibre team.”
“We needed to get some very specific wins, needed to take some steps forward as a group to build that confidence in order to then recognize how good we could be,” Vanney continued. “Ultimately, we really took that step in the 2016 playoffs, where there was no question anymore in anybody's mind that we could be a championship team.”
He points to winning the 2016 Canadian Championship as one of those specific moments.
“That was a big one, Will Johnson in the last second,” Vanney said. “That was a big moment because it gave an added boost and purpose to that season; the group realized that they could win. It galvanized the group and then we went on a run. And once we did what we did to the playoffs, there was no more convincing the group how good they could be, they believed it at that point and now it was about how good could we be.”
“Once you cross that threshold, you're off and running,” he continued. “And then it's about process, about getting better every day. And if you do those things, the championship opportunities will come and they did.”
“The only thing I rue is that we've been in championship games, we've been right there, we've been the better team and we haven't come away with the trophies on a few,” he lamented. “If I'm being greedy, knowing what happened in those games, I wish we had those. In some ways we deserved to have those, but we didn't do the job completely.”
“If we keep doing those things,” Vanney added. “We'll keep working our way into the championship games and opportunities to win trophies.”
With the culture established and a plan, as well as a backup or two, in his pocket, the coach sees more chances for success ahead.
“It gets harder every year, as new teams come in and more money gets put into the league. It's no longer 15-20 teams that you’ve got to get through to get this, it’s 30 teams now that you’ve got to work your way through,” Vanney said. “A lot of good teams and a lot of difficult places to play.”
“What we've been able to do has been tremendous,” he added. “And now it's about maintaining it, but if the culture stays together, we keep adding the right pieces, there's no reason we can't keep contending year in and year out.”
TORONTO – The winningest coach in Toronto FC history doesn’t remember much about his first.