SEATTLE—Greg Vanney understands the demands of a Major League Soccer season.
The 45-year-old former defender spent 11 seasons in the league as a player, reaching three finals with the Los Angeles Galaxy. And he’s leading Toronto FC to its third MLS Cup final in four years as a head coach. So it was saying something when Vanney recently said 2019 felt like a “really long year.”
“Sometimes when I’ve sat back and thought about what transpired over the course of the pre-season, it doesn’t even seem like the same year,” Vanney said.
The TFC team that reported for training camp in mid-January is, in Vanney’s mind, a different iteration of the squad that will face the Seattle Sounders at CenturyLink Field on Sunday. Gone are star attackers Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, as well as Dutch international Gregory van der Wiel, who was reportedly sent home from a team training camp in California that month after an altercation with the coach and never played for the team again.
In their places came striker Alejandro Pozuelo and centre back Omar Gonzalez, but not immediately. The team found itself in something of a holding pattern as it tried to put all the necessary pieces in place for a return to the top, especially after missing the playoffs in 2018.
There were moments when Vanney seemed to be coaching for his job, like after team president Bill Manning told TSN in June that he was in the biggest skid of his TFC tenure. A subsection of dissenting Reds fans reignited a familiar “Vanney Out” hashtag on social media. If the coach was fazed, he didn’t show it.
“I put more expectation on myself than anyone can put on me from external places,” he said this week.
“I’ve felt a lot like I’ve had to adjust, adapt, be reactive to certain situations and come up with solutions. And it wasn’t until we started to get all the pieces together — and guys back from the Gold Cup (in July) and bring in the players who were going to help our team — did I feel like we could settle down and say, ‘OK, here’s what our group is going to look like, here’s how we’re going to move forward and now we’ve got to start to take those steps.’
“I can tell you this from 2018: You’re never going to be successful if you’re reacting to things all the time.”
Vanney led a team that had posted a 9-9-5 record through the end of July on a 13-game unbeaten streak to reach the MLS Cup final. All the adapting he had to do as he navigated the storm of 2018 and early 2019 served him well down the stretch; he tested new formations and found the right combination of starting and role players.
Defender Justin Morrow, among the longest-tenured players on the team, said this version of Vanney is a “night and day” difference from the first-time coach who took over from Ryan Nelsen in August 2014. “I think he’s trusting his instincts a lot more and that shows tactically on the field,” Morrow said.
The rave reviews come from the newcomers too. Vanney is the reason starting goalkeeper Quentin Westberg chose to join Toronto in February, after a phone call revealed the coach’s genuine love for and commitment to the game “You just sit and wait for what he’s going to come up with. We know he’s going to get us prepared just perfectly.”
Attacking midfielder Nick DeLeon calls Vanney a student and tactician of the game. “He’s all about trying to get guys in the right spots to impact the game the best way they can … I think he’s got a big part to do with TFC being here three times in four years.”
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A win in Sunday’s MLS Cup final would be Vanney’s 100th victory with Toronto. And it might be the most satisfying. The student of the game learned enough to get Toronto back to where it wanted to be.
“The game always tells us what the answers are and what the solutions are,” Vanney said. “There’s no way to script out a soccer game. You just don’t know. You just have to read it and put the guys in the right places to try to be successful.”